Strauss & Co Sets New World Record For Linocut By Namibian Artist John Muafangejo

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Zimbabwe House, a 1975 linocut print chronicling the ambitions and struggles of 33-year-old John Muafangejo, was the star lot of Strauss & Co’s highly successful online sale African Lion: John Muafangejo Works from the Orde Levinson Collection, which concluded on 3 May. The linocut, a masterful example of this acclaimed Namibian printmaker’s skilled combination of figural subjects and autobiographical text, was the subject of intense bidding and eventually sold for R410 375, a new world record for the artist.

The linocut formed part of a unique 153-lot offering of Muafangejo linocut prints and original (but cancelled) lino blocks consigned by Orde Levinson, a noted art collector and scholar of Muafangejo. The sale, Strauss & Co’s first-ever sale devoted to a single artist, achieved R3.36 million with a 76% lot sell-through rate. The results from this sale place Muafangejo in the company of William Kentridge, a prolific printmaker whose diverse output includes linocuts, too. In 2019 Strauss & Co sold Kentridge’s Universal Archive (Big Tree), a linocut depiction of a tree printed across 15 pages, for R455 200.

“This sale represents an important milestone for Muafangejo in the secondary market,” says Susie Goodman, an executive director at Strauss & Co. “It is a resoundingly positive assertion for an artist who, over the past few years, has built up a significant base of new collectors. The impeccable provenance of the works in the Orde Levinson Collection was a definite draw for collectors. The sale attracted 114 bidders from a half-dozen countries, and included both private and institutional collectors. In one instance the bidder was looking to bolster their existing collection of Rorke’s Drift prints with prime examples of work by Muafangejo.”

Born in 1943 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.

Zimbabwe House, the top-selling individual lot in this sale, is noteworthy for its reference to Orde Levinson’s mother, the noted collector and writer Olga Levinson. South African-born Olga Levinson settled in Namibia in 1943 where she established a successful career as a writer and patron of the arts. Her financial assistance of Muafangejo in the 1970s is detailed in Zimbabwe House.

Orde Levinson inherited his mother’s enthusiasm and over time built up a large collection of Muafangejo’s work, including prints and blocks acquired at a 1989 auction of the artist’s estate. He also supervised the production of I was Lonelyness: The Complete Graphic Works of John Muafangejo (1992), a definitive catalogue raisonné of all 262 of Muafangejo’s known graphic works made between 1968 and 1987. These factors added further credibility to the Muafangejo consignment.

The Orde Levinson Collection included the artist’s first linocut, Adam and Eva, a graphically complex evocation of the biblical paradise of Eden printed in 1968. The print sold for R 58 625. Elephant is Killing a Lion in Funny Way, printed in 1975, also attracted serious interest and sold for R175 875. An uncharacteristically spare and humorous composition from 1981, Snow was Making Artist Fall Down Twice in Finland, sold for R117 250. The print registers the diverse places visited by the artist following his early success.

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 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”. The results achieved by Strauss & Co with the sale of the Orde Levinson Collection underscore the longevity of this insight.

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