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Namibia’s famous contemporary artist - John Muafangejo

Avatar of inke inke - 15. février 2019 - Culture

John Muafangejo as a young man (Photo by JMAC) and on a postage stamp from NamPost.

Brigitte Weidlich

The National Art Gallery of Namibia (NAGN) is located in Windhoek and well worth a visit. It organises several exhibitions every year reflecting Namibia’s vibrant and dynamic contemporary arts sector.

Its permanent art collection is a treasure trove for art lovers from near and far. Many visitors are drawn to several black and white linocuts in a unique style depicting African village life and church scenes. The linocuts include a text, describing the artwork. 

These are artworks of John Muafangejo; one of Namibia’s most acclaimed contemporary artists who also exhibited internationally. 

Although his life was cut short, when he suddenly died of a heart attack shortly after his 44th birthday in 1987, his legacy lives on, also because he was the first artist from a previously disadvantaged background who transcended ethnic barriers and fascinated art lovers from all walks of life locally and abroad. 

Background and life history

John Ndevasia Muafangejo was born on 5 October 1943 in the village of Etunda lo Nghadi in southern Angola. He belonged to the Oukwanyama sub-tribe of the Owambo ethnic group, who lives in north-central Namibia and southern Angola. The Owambo are the largest ethnic group in Namibia and have several subgroups. 

Muafangejo grew up at the family’s homestead the traditional way, herding cattle in the fields. As an adult he would always recall his happy village childhood days in a large family, his father had eight wives. 

In 1955, John’s father died. His mother converted to Christianity and in 1956 moved to the Anglican mission station at Epinga in Namibia (then South West Africa), very close to the Angolan border. A year later John joined his mother there, he was 12 years old and started schooling. In 1964 he enrolled at the Holy Cross mission school at Onamunama and a short while later he attended classes at the Saint Mary’s Anglican secondary school at Odibo, a stone’s throw from the Angolan border. There, a US-American missionary noted the artistic talent of the youngster and helped him to apply for art studies at the Lutheran Arts & Craft Centre at Rorke’s Drift in Natal, South Africa. This centre had opened in 1962 thanks to the initiative of the Swedish couple Ulla and Peder Gowenius. The centre was one of the few opportunities for black artists to study arts during the apartheid era. Muafangejo was accepted and in 1968 took up his studies there.

After eighteen months, he was admitted in hospital and treated for nervous exhaustion. The friendly, sensitive and quiet young man was diagnosed to be bipolar, but he returned to Rorke's Drift to complete his course within the prescribed two years. As his friends later said, he took his medication regularly to cope with this condition. When things became difficult to cope with, he would retire to his room for a bit until he could “face the world” again. Already in 1969 his distinct black and white woodcuts and linocuts were exhibited at the Durban Art Gallery in Natal, and the Camden Arts Centre in London.

Returning home to Odibo as art teacher

It was a big moment for Muafangejo, his mother, friends and St. Mary’s when he returned to Odibo in 1970 as an art teacher. He stayed there for the next four years. 

In 1974 he was invited back to Rorke's Drift as an 'artist-in-residence' after winning a scholarship by the Behnsen family in Windhoek. The same year his artworks were exhibited in Washington, London and South Africa. The Arts Association of then South West Africa and its members like Rosemarie von Seggern, Nana Wagner and Annaleen Eins became interested in Muafangejo’s work for exhibitions. 

In 1976 Muafangejo, was back in Odibo again to teach. A collection of his prints, selected by South African artist Walter Battiss, was published, something rather unusual in those days. 

Fulltime artist in Windhoek

Muafangejo took a bold decision to leave north-central Namibia and in 1977 he moved to Windhoek to concentrate on his artwork fulltime. His first workplace was the Anglican Church Centre in town where he also lived. His artworks sold well. In 1978 the South African apartheid government officially abolished apartheid in Namibia. This meant that inhabitants could meet and mix socially like at restaurants and other places without the fear of being arrested, though such incidences still happened, especially in the ‘military zone’ in northern Namibia. 

In the meantime, art lovers in Namibia, South Africa and abroad organised exhibitions of Muafangejo’s now characteristically striking linocuts as far as Sao Paulo, New York, Berlin, Hamburg and Helsinki.

In 1986 Muafangejo began constructing a small house for himself in the Katutura township in Windhoek which he completed the following year. He died suddenly on 27 November 1987 in Katutura, barely 7 weeks after his 44th birthday. “It was a terrible shock to hear of his untimely death. It was also very sad that John could not live to witness Namibia becoming independent on 21 March 1990,” one of his friends said.

Outstanding and recognisable artistic style

Apart from brilliantly mastering the techniques of wood cuts and linocuts, John Muafangejo developed a unique style adding texts to his artworks to describe his religious, political, social and traditional observations through art as close to the truth as possible. “Text and titles confirm the realistic approach and assist in avoiding the impression of a double meaning,” says art expert Annaleen Eins. 

The legacy of Muafangejo continues

In 1994, the John Muafangejo Art Centre (JMAC) was established to keep the memory of Namibia’s famous artist alive and to foster young talents in the country. The JMAC first found a home in Windhoek in the erstwhile camel stables of the German colonial period up on the hill behind the Office of the Prime Minister. In 2015, the JMAC moved to Windhoek’s central business district and is housed in the Namibia Craft Centre, also called Old Brewery. A JMAC satellite centre was also established in Katutura.

In 1993, when Muafangejo would have become 50 years old, a big exhibition of his artworks was organised in the National Art Gallery of Namibia (NAGN). 

Ten years after his death, the philately department of the Namibia Postal Service (NamPost) issued a stamp of John Muafangejo in 1997. The biggest collection of his works is housed in the NAGN. 

God is there for all people, regardless of their faith. (John Muafangejo 1981, photo by National Art Gallery Namibia)

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