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Museum-grade works by printmaker John Muafangejo from the Orde Levinson Collection to go on sale

Strauss & Co is thrilled to announce details of an exceptional sale uniquely devoted to the celebrated Namibian printmaker John Muafangejo. Comprising nearly 150 lots, this landmark once-off sale, due to open online on 23 April, will feature over 100 examples of Muafangejo’s masterful linocut prints, as well as a large consignment of 36 original (but cancelled) lino blocks. Orde Levinson, a noted art collector and scholar of Muafangejo, is the sole consignor to this sale, the first-ever devoted to a single artist by Strauss & Co.

“The sale entitled African Lion: John Muafangejo Works from The Orde Levinson Collection offers a sweeping overview of the artist’s trailblazing career,” says Dr Alastair Meredith, a senior art specialist at Strauss & Co who led negotiations for this important consignment. “The group of works on offer reveals a lifetime of patient, focused collecting, and gives print enthusiasts a rare opportunity to acquire examples from a collection of museum-grade quality, scope and historical weight. Dedicating an entire sale to a single artist is unique, of course, and allows academics and collectors alike to better appreciate this artist’s remarkable output.”

Born in 1943 near the Kunene River in southern Angola and educated at various mission schools in northern Namibia, Muafangejo studied printmaking at the Evangelical Lutheran Church (ELC) Art and Craft Centre at Rorke’s Drift in KwaZulu-Natal in 1968-69. Mentored by Azaria Mbatha, Muafangejo skilfully used linocut – a relief printing method noted for its flatness and shallow depth-of-field – to produce richly autobiographical images as well as narrative works invested with social and religious themes.

Muafangejo’s detailed compositions knitting together diverse figures and text passages into striking pictographic scenes quickly garnered the artist international recognition. In 1969, while still a student at Rorke’s Drift, Muafangejo, together with Dumile Feni and Sydney Kumalo, participated in the exhibition Contemporary African Art at the Camden Arts Centre, London. It marked the start of a distinguished career. The influential British art critic Edward Lucie-Smith in 1983 described Muafangejo as “consistently the best of all the modern masters” of his medium and “a printmaker of world-class”.

Muafangejo was also feted in South Africa. He became the second artist after Robert Hodgins to receive the guest artist award at the Standard Bank National Arts Festival in 1988. That same year his linocut Lonely Man, Man of Man (1974) appeared in Stephen Sack’s landmark exhibition The Neglected Tradition: Towards a New History of South African Art (1930–1988​) at the Johannesburg Art Gallery. Strauss & Co’s Muafangejo consignment includes an edition of this important work.

The artist’s sudden death from a heart attack in late 1987, at age 44, cut short a fluorescent career. In recent years, prints by Muafangejo’s hand have become increasingly sought after in the secondary market – apart from the two posthumous portfolios published by Levinson, Muafangejo made all his own prints. Strauss & Co has offered 72 lots by Muafangejo since 2009, with 85% of these lost finding buyers. In 2018, Muafangejo’s linocut Evangelical Lutheran Church, Women’s Meeting (1974) from the Late Peter and Regina Strack Collection sold for R49 245. 

Namibian-born Orde Levinson, who holds a doctorate in art history from the University of Oxford, began collecting Muafangejo prints while still a young man. He credits the passion for art, and Muafangejo in particular, to his mother. After settling in Namibia in 1943, South African-born Olga Levinson established a successful career as a writer and patron of the arts. She is well known to art collectors for her 1973 book on painter Adolph Jentsch.

“While her great love was Jentsch and our house was filled with his work, my mother collected and hung many other artists including, of course, Muafangejo,” says Orde Levinson. “By the time of Muafangejo’s death in 1987, I must have had at least 100 works. With the 1989 death of my mother, who had a large collection, I increased my collection with images that I did not have and a further number of duplicates.”

The Orde Levinson collection of John Muafangejo consigned to Strauss & Co includes the artist’s first linocut, Adam and Eve (1968), a vibrant and complex work evoking the biblical paradise of Eden. Other notable early prints on offer include the autobiographical work An Interview of Cape Town University in 1971 (1974), which portrays the artist’s failed application to study art in Cape Town. The collection spans Muafangejo’s entire career and includes works dated 1987. Muafangejo died before Namibia attained independence in 1990, but the subject matter and thematic concerns of his later work anticipates liberation. 

Following Muafangejo’s death, his heirs decided to auction off his entire estate, including the contents of his studio. Orde Levinson successfully acquired 163 of the original lino and wood blocks and one surviving etching plate, as well as a substantial number of the 120 signed and 500 unsigned prints, from this sale. “The issue of the sale of the lino blocks was a consideration for me,” says Levinson, who also collected works by John Piper and Henry Moore. “They were utterly stunning works and reveal the degree of craftsmanship and creativity and natural design that Muafangejo clearly had.” 

Recognising the need to preserve Muafangejo’s unique output, Levinson helped supervise the posthumous cancellation of his blocks. He also set about producing a definitive catalogue raisonné. Published in 1992, I was Lonelyness: The Complete Graphic Works of John Muafangejo is an exhaustive and authoritative document of all 262 of Muafangejo’s known graphic works made between 1968 and 1987. A new edition with texts in Oshikwanyama and German is forthcoming.

For collectors unfamiliar with the importance of Muafangejo’s work, British art historian and print expert Pat Gilmour’s contribution to this book remains instructive. “Muafangejo’s work is miraculously full of beauty, tenderness, humour and humanity, but we do no service to his memory by claiming he offers vague humanist panaceas about brotherly love or timeless aesthetic values that transcend maker and place,” writes Gilmour. “Muafangejo’s glory resides in the record he left – not only for Namibians but for the rest of us – of a struggle for liberation from disgraceful white oppression.”

Orde Levinson’s decision to relinquish custodianship of his remarkable collection of Muafangejo works is bittersweet. “I have succeeded in having exhibitions of his work and placing works in collectors’ hands, but I have not managed to establish any museum. It is time to move on and let others enjoy the works and the blocks. I hope the pleasure and enjoyment these works bring can now be more widespread.”

Strauss & Co’s timed online-only auction of the Orde Levinson Collection of John Muafangejo opens on 23 April at 8.00 am and ends on 3 May at 8.00 pm. The sale is supported by an interactive e-catalogue featuring a contextualizing essay by Orde Levinson and various photographs of the artist. The catalogue will be viewable online shortly before the sale commences. DM/ML


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