One of South Africa's first black modern artists, Ernesto Mancoba led other African artists in a transnational dialogue about the role of gesture in abstraction. After he relocated to France in 1938 he became part of the avant-garde CoBrA (Copenhagen, Brussels, Amsterdam) group that was active from 1948 to 1951. The CoBrA artists valued the primal experience of making art over the achievement of a polished final product. As a co-founder and regular exhibitor with the CoBrA group, Mancoba refined his resolute gestures and color palette throughout the 1950s, even after the movement's official dissolution.
Mancoba’s Composition (1951) features his bright palette and lively experimentation with repetitive gesture, traits that are typically read as a visual echo of traditional African sculpture. Composition is restricted to a palette of primary colors, each concentration of pigment set within loosely geometric, though sharply delineated, shapes.
Departing completely from his mission school education in South Africa, Mancoba created art that eschewed tradition and precedent. His works, instead, signal the sensorial enjoyment of art-making, celebrating the gesture behind each line and the physical pleasure of applying pigment to canvas.
Ernest Mancoba was one of the first successful black modern artists in South Africa. He began woodcarving in 1925 while studying at Grace Dieu, an Anglican teachers college, and produced a modernist relief, African Madonna, in 1929. In 1935 Mancoba moved to Cape Town, where he joined a group of Trotskyite artists. With the encouragement of artist Gerard Sekoto, he completed his art studies at the University of Fort Hare. Mancoba received a scholarship to study at the École nationale supérieure des Arts Décoratifs (National School of Decorative Arts) in Paris in 1938. There he met Danish artist Sonja Ferlov, whom he married in 1942. During the German occupation of France in World War II, Mancoba was sent to an internment camp in St. Denis in 1940. The couple moved to Denmark in 1947 and became involved with the artist collective CoBrA (1948–51), of which Mancoba was a founding member. The avant-garde group, which included Karel Appel (1921–2006) and Asger Jorn (1914–1973), embraced Marxism and tachism. Mancoba abandoned sculpture in the 1950s and turned to painting, creating loose, abstract forms related to West African Kota reliquary figures. After CoBrA stopped exhibiting, Mancoba and his family resettled in Paris; he became a French citizen in 1961.