On April 9, SA and globally known Ndebele artist and icon Esther Mahlangu will be conferred with an honorary doctorate by the University of Johannesburg.
Esther Nikwambi Mahlangu was born on 11 November 1935 in Middelburg, Mpumalanga, South Africa, and belongs to the South Ndebele people.
She began painting at the age of 10, and was taught the skill of mural painting by her mother and grandmother, following a tradition of her native South Ndebele people for females to paint the exterior of houses. It is in this cultural tradition that Mahlangu began her artistic journey.
Mahlangu continued to follow the local tradition through which this particular type of painting technique is handed down in the family, communicated, learned and transmitted only by women (in the past). These paintings are closely connected with the ancient tradition of decorating the houses on the occasion of the rite of passage for boys. Between 18 and 20 years of age, the youth of the tribe go to “a school of circumcision”, the ritual that confirm their passage to adulthood. To celebrate this event the women completely repaint the inside and the outside of their houses with a preparation of cow dung and natural pigments. Brightly coloured acrylic paints are also applied in designs outlined by black lines. Although seemingly simple, the geometric abstraction that is revealed by these paintings is underscored by the constant repetition and symmetry of such simple shapes that make the whole work quite complex.
Esther’ S Unique Art.
Esther Mahlangu’s art highlight the tension between local and global, between the anchor and detachment. Despite continuing to use the same “artistic vocabulary” closely tied to her traditions, Mahlangu has applied the designs to various objects including canvas, sculpture, ceramics, automobiles and airplanes. She has also collaborated with various brands like BMW, Fiat, EYTYS, Melissa’s, Beleverde and the British Museum.
Esther Mahlangu’s 1991 BMW Artcar was on exhibited at the British Museum as part of ‘South Africa: the art of a nation’, from 27 October 2016 – 27 February 2017. The new BMW Individual 7 series with unique internal wooden trims painted by her was exhibited at Frieze Art Fair 2016 with accompanying exhibition of work co-curated by BMW and 34FineArt. She recently completed a special edition premium Belvedere Vodka bottle design which partly raised funds for charity causes. As an artist in residence, Mahlangu was commissioned in 2014 by the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts to create two large works of art.
Building a Legacy.
Mahlangu directs a school which teaches young girls not only painting but also the technique of painting designs on particular compositions of beads.
Her work suggests, that the tradition is not a static entity. “Tradition is a mobile field, future-oriented and ready to incorporate diverse stimuli.” In fact, although South Africa is now one of the African nations actively promoting the work of their artists both nationally and internationally with the likes of the biennial event in Johannesburg, the work of Esther Mahlangu even more speaks courage being a person who was born and grew up in political and social turmoil.
Esther Mahlangu has worked tirelessly exposing and developing her talent travelling around the world, and she is very passionate about sharing her knowledge with the younger generation so that she leaves a legacy that lives on for generations to come.