Critics’ Picks

Malangatana Ngwenya, O prisioneiro, (The Prisoner), 1969, pen and black ink on paper, 17 x 12 4/5".

Malangatana Ngwenya, O prisioneiro, (The Prisoner), 1969, pen and black ink on paper, 17 x 12 4/5".


Malangatana Ngwenya

The Art Institute of Chicago
111 South Michigan Avenue
July 30, 2021–November 16, 2020

Across the forty-six expertly selected works in this survey on the artist Malangatana Ngwenya (1936­–2011) are hundreds of eyes—eyes “so big,” as the writer Luís Bernardo Honwana would say, that they appear to be “yearning for something without wanting to say what.” Indeed, the show is a spectacular yet gruesome chronicle of a nearly decade-long war that dissolved Portugal’s colonial stranglehold on Malangatana’s home country, Mozambique, in 1975. His early paintings, poems, and drawings erupt the myth recapitulated in Lisbon by the British imperialist Lord William Malcolm Hailey in 1957: that “the great non-assimilated indigenous population [of Portugal] is an inert, or at any event silent mass.”

Malangatana’s work renounces Hailey’s absurd notion with explosive color and densely splattered monsters that, among other things, indirectly ridicule the Portuguese dictator António de Oliveira Salazar’s genocidal “civilizing missions.” Yet his modernity rests not in the Cubist experiments the artist undertook while being mentored by the architect Pancho Guedes, nor in his work’s vague kinship with Surrealism, which he never claimed for himself. Rather, it manifests in a batch of twenty-one drawings, all of which were inspired by Malangatana’s eighteen months in jail for suspected anti-colonial activities—first at Sommerfeld Prison, then at the notorious Machava PIDE Penitentiary. His confined and solitary figures speak to the claustrophobic delirium of the dispossessed, who were tortured and forced into silence. In Sala de Castigo de PIDE (PIDE’s Punishment Room), 1965, walls surround an emaciated man rendered in black ink. In O prisioneiro (The Prisoner), 1969, an inmate’s tears become a cruel fettering device that, while piercing his face and one hand, binds him to a crudely fashioned enclosure. And in Sol calcinante (Searing Sun) and Imaginando a fuga (Imagining the Escape), both 1965, the figures are connected to each other by a network of fluid lines—a testament to the fortitude of fraternity.

Malangatana’s art holds a mirror to the grotesque—particularly for those who silently watch it unfold from the safety of their own unbeaten bodies—in order to rouse them into action.