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Another accolade for the high priestess of Ndebele art, Esther Mahlangu


Esther Mahlangu is not only one of the most talented traditional artists in South Africa, she is also revered for, virtually singlehandedly, keeping the vibrant Ndebele style of painting alive.

At age 82, this formidable woman is adding yet another feather to her cap: she will receive an honourary Doctorate from the University of Johannesburg on Monday, 9 April.

Mahlangu was born on 11 November 1935 in Middelburg, Mpumalanga and began painting when she was 10 years old, learning the traditional art of Ndebele painting for her mother and grandmother.

She became an expert in painting traditional murals, and, following the death of her husband and two of her three children, she lived and worked at the Botshabelo Historical Village, an open-air museum of Ndebele culture.

In 1986, researchers from Paris who were travelling the world to document traditional arts saw the paintings on Mahlangu’s house. They invited her to create murals for an exhibition of international contemporary art, the Magiciens de la Terre (‘Magicians of the World’).

She travelled to France in 1989, staying there for two months and painting a house in front of thousands of spectators. She also decorated a wall inside the AngoulÁªme Museum of Fine Arts and showed her work at other locations in France. In 1990 she began to paint murals for public venues in Johannesburg and elsewhere in South Africa, soon followed by locations in Europe and the United States. Her work appeared in exhibitions in more than a dozen countries.

Mahlangu was the first person to transfer the traditional Ndbele style of mural painting to canvas. She painted her geometric patterns on a BMW 525i in 1991, becoming the twelfth artist and first woman to take part in the BMW Art Car Project after figures such as Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein. In the years that followed she exhibited work in countries around the world, from Mexico to Switzerland to Australia.

With the goal of preserving her cultural heritage, Mahlangu started an art school in the backyard of her home in Mabhoko (Weltevreden) in the KwaMhlanga district in Mpumalanga Province. She funded the school herself, and when not travelling for exhibitions she mentors young artists in the traditional style of Ndebele design. Pupils learn how to mix pigments and paint straight lines, freehanded and without sketches, using their fingers or chicken feathers.

Mahlangu is perhaps best known to a younger generation for joining forces with luxury car brand BMW to paint their BMW Art Car. This was the first of the series’ collaborations with women. Now, 25 years later, the company has commissioned her to paint the interior panels of a BMW Individual 7 Series, with the one-of-a-kind car going up for auction at the Frieze Art Fair in London in October.

In 2004, she was invited to collaborate with Nelson Mandela. She created six paintings inspired by Mandela by embelisshing prints of drawings that he created in the traditional Ndebele style for which she is globally renowned.These artworsk were exhibited for the first time in March 2017 at The Melrose Gallery in association with The House of Mandela.A limited set of 95 prints have been created from these artworks.

Mahlangu's awards include the South African government’s Order of Ikhamanga, silver class, in 2006, as well as the Mpumalanga Arts and Culture Award, an award from the French Ministry of Culture, two awards from Radio Ndebele and others from South Africa and abroad.

Sources: SA History, www.esthermahlanguart.com

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