Iconic Mosarwa artist dies

13 Oct 2013

The celebrated Mosarwa artist and presidential award honouree, Cg’oise Ntcox’o, who enraged former British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, with her “awful” art, died last Sunday at Gantsi Primary Hospital after suffering a stroke.

Ntcox’o is supposed to have been born in Kalkfontein around 1950 (the year Basarwa activist, Roy Sesana, was born) but some in her community say that she was much older. She was part of the Kuru Art Project, a stable of highly accomplished Basarwa artists who ply their trade at a facility in D’Kar.

A statement from Kuru says that “like most of the women at the Kuru Art Project, she liked to depict the daily work of the San women, like the collecting and preparing of veld foods. Various plants and bird forms usually filled up her large canvasses. Animals like dogs and donkeys sometimes appeared in her work. All of these, together with her well-rounded human figures, symbolised for her the bounty of the Kalahari after good rains.”

Her paintings were constructed of flat planes, alternated by linear elements and she often repeated the same pattern. The Kuru statement says that this style suited the brightly coloured linoleum prints and lithographs she created. It adds that through her art, Ntcox’o “wanted to remember the beauty of life in the Kalahari” and that as most of the Kuru artists, she portrayed almost nothing of the hardship, pain and difficult circumstances in which she lived.

The highlight of her career came in 1997 when she started flying Botswana’s flag very high up in the sky. This came after her artwork was featured on the tailfins of eight British Airways aeroplanes travelling to all corners of the globe.

As part of a rebranding exercise, BA wanted to use art and designs from international artists and other sources to represent countries on its route network. The signature of the artist was carried below the design on the tail. The project was overseen by Newell and Sorrell, a London design agency that selected Ntcox’o’s art from among thousands from across the world. Her design was called “Animals and Trees” and was one of only three such from Africa. The other two designs were by Martha and Emmly Masanabo, both from South Africa. As a result of this exposure, international demand for Ntcox’o’s work grew exponentially.

However, the adoption of this tailfin art sparked outrage in the United Kingdom and among its most rabid opponents was Thatcher, who had been seven years of office. In one over-the-top incident, the Iron Lady registered her displeasure by covering one of the new tailfins on a model 747 jet with a handkerchief, declaring as she did so: "We fly the British flag, not these awful things you are putting on tails."

On a practical level though, the new tail designs were not working as well as BA had intended because they were interfering with air traffic control, raising serious safety concerns. Previously, controllers would tell pilots to follow BA planes but the new designs made such visual identification harder because each plane was painted in a range of different colours and colour schemes. The lack of a consistent tail design also meant that controllers and other aircrew could misidentify BA planes. Virgin Airlines took advantage of this situation by applying a Union flag scheme to the front end of its aircraft and touting itself as "Britain's Flag Carrier."

Under mounting pressure, BA finally caved in in May 2001 when its new CEO announced that the entire fleet would receive the new Union flag livery. Thus ended Ntcox’o’s high profile international career and relationship with the carrier.

Tragically, at the height of her success, Ntcox’o also suffered great personal loss because a year after the BA deal, her only child died. So devastated was she that according to the Kuru statement, her artistic productivity declined dramatically. The following year, she and three other Kuru artists were selected to join four American artists in a printmaking workshop at the Tamarind Institute in New Mexico in the United States. During this trip, Ntcox’o flew in one of the planes featuring her artwork and she is said to have been immensely pleased. However, another tragedy was not too far off and in 2003, her husband with whom she had been very close and was very supportive of her, also died.

Her community rallied around her and the main pillar of strength was her friend, next-door neighbour and fellow artist, Dada Qgam, who was an internationally acclaimed artist in her own right. However, the latter succumbed to cancer in 2010 and Ntcox’o’s life sank to a new low.

She moved out of her house in D’Kar and moved around between her friends and her own family members in East Hanahai where she had a cattlepost. Her brother looked after the cattle. About a year ago, another one of the older women artists, Qgocgae Cao, took Ntcox’o in. She and her family look after the elderly woman until she died on October 6.

Some 16 years later, no other Botswana artist has matched Ntcox’o’s feat and in 2011 she was honoured with a presidential award for her contribution to the arts. Her design has also been used on a keepsake BA ticket jacket which, at press time, was selling for US$6 online. She will be buried this coming Saturday in D’Kar.