An exhibition opened at the Iziko Museums in Cape Town, South Africa in honor of Dr. Eshter Mahlangu on February 17. /Photo: Iziko Museum

By Sylvia Chebet

In her signature traditional Ndebele outfit featuring layers of beaded necklaces and a bright-coloured draping skirt, Dr. Esther Mahlangu stoops over a large canvas.

When she finally lifts her face, a strip of beads with hanging A-shaped patterns settle on her forehead revealing her eyes as yet another masterpiece lies before her.

Bold, large-scale contemporary paintings referencing the Ndeble heritage define Mahlangu’s artistry.

“She is a force. She's not a big bold person but her work and her presence is bold and she commands respect in the most incredible gentle ways,” Nontobeko Ntombela, the curator of an international exhibition honouring Mahlangu’s life and work tells TRT Afrika.

“She's larger than life,” Ntobeko adds, gesturing with her thumb and index finger.

“I want to contribute to South Africa’s image and history in the creative space,”

Dr. Esther Mahlangu

Esther Mahlangu is not a household name just in South Africa. She is a celebrated international contemporary artist whose career spans seven decades.

Esther Mahlangu has received numerous honorary degrees, travelled to more than 20 countries and painted murals in eight cities. /Photo: Iziko Museum

Her artistry finding expression in the most unlikely places; from small, treasured keepsakes like shoes and ceramics, to vast public installations and murals.

“Ma’am Esther has always pushed beyond just the regular of the mural,” Ntobeko says.

According to the curator, there is an assumption that the motifs are repeated and similar in communal practice because everybody uses them.

“What becomes very specific to Ma’am Esther is how she is able to draw into abstract motif forms, sometimes everyday objects. And once you begin to see those motifs appear, you realise that she is pushed beyond the traditional patterns that we know that are often common to many communities across Africa.”

Mahlangu’s signature pattern of bounded lines set diagonally or shaped like chevrons just like those on her clothing and jewelry.

Her unique style, according to Ntobeko, blends traditional Ndebele art with contemporary forms and explores themes of cultural identity, resilience and artistic expression.

Esther Mahlangu has been collected by several public institutions and private homes worldwide. / Photo: Iziko Museum

“Some of these patterns you can recognise. For example, the razor blade, which is a haircutting tool that is very popular in South Africa… She has taken the image of the brand of the Minora blade and designed patterns that you see recurring over time,” Ntobeko expounds.

The shapes may be simple, but the constant repetition and symmetry make the whole work quite complex. Curators reckon her compositions are more compact, more engaging and intricate than that of her contemporaries.

“One of the interesting things that Ma’am Esther does in her paintings is that she often pays tribute to the patterns that she was taught by her grandmother. So she pays ode to that ancestral trajectory.”

Born in 1935 in South Africa’s Mpumalanga Province, Esther Mahlangu’s destiny was defined from her childhood.

Esther Mahlangu's iconic BMW Art Car arrived in South Africa for the first time after over 30 years ahead of the exhibition. Photo: Iziko Museum

‘Then I knew I was good at painting’

At the tender age of 10, Mahlangu’s little fingers were itching to paint. She desperately wanted to join her mother and grandmother in painting the exterior of their house, a Ndebele woman’s chore that delighted her. Being inexperienced, they sent her to practice at the back of the house.

“So she describes how she would paint at the back of the house and they would say to her, ‘what have you done? Go and practice some more’. After some time, they realized, actually she's good. They told her to come and paint at the front of the house. She then realised, she says, then I knew I was good at painting.”

A defining moment that would usher Mahlangu into an illustrious career in art. An unexpected twist of fate for a Ndebele girl whose aim was simply to accomplish a cultural obligation.

“So there is an expectation of young Ndebele women to learn how to paint murals… It was taught to young women so that when you get married, you are able to paint your house.”

Growing up in apartheid South Africa, Esther had no chance to step foot in a formal classroom. "Tradition was her school," Ntobeko states.

Esther Mahlangu uses a feather to paint her murals, canvases or objects as she was taught by her mother and grandmother. Photo: iziko Museum

Using a feather, the apprentice would need to paint a mural satisfactory by standards that were only known by heart.

“For a long time, they (Ndebele) were a community in transit because of wars,” Ntobeko, a historian and curator explains.

“Seeing these homes and seeing this community mark their homes and land in this particular way has much bigger and broader political implications as a practice.”

Mahlangu didn’t immediately comprehend those implications but they laid a foundation for her stunning success.

She has since exhibited in over 20 countries, painted murals in eight of them, participated in residency programmes and worked on projects with fashion brands.

Her works have been collected by public institutions and private individuals worldwide. Esther Mahlangu is also a recipient of numerous honorary doctorates for her contribution to art.

Esther Mahlangu's work spans seven decades, starting when she was only 10 years old. Photo: Iziko Museum

A major exhibition is currently underway at the Iziko South African National Gallery in Cape Town in honour of the maestro.

“Iziko Museums is honoured to celebrate the living legend, Dr. Esther Mahlangu and to host this colossal showcase where creativity, culture and aesthetics are fused,” Dr Bongani Ndhlovu, Acting CEO, Iziko Museums of South Africa, said.

The exposition titled “Then I Knew I Was Good at Painting”: Esther Mahlangu, A Retrospective, will run until August before it begins a global tour.

“This particular title is about emphasising how she was visionary at the age of 10,” curator Ntobeko explains.

“Imagining herself as an artist, declaring herself as an artist as a black African child at 10 years old, is radical. It's an incredible way of seeing yourself in a future that wasn't necessarily designed for you.”

Breaking the glass ceiling

The 88-year-old artist at the public opening of the Esther Mahlangu, a retrospective exhibition in Capetown South Africa. / Photo: Iziko Museum

About 54 years later, in 1989, Mahlangu suddenly burst into the international limelight at a French art exposition.

The curators of the French exhibition spotted her house when they visited South Africa on a research mission.

“And it was by chance that they came across her house and realised what a shift she offers to the practice. They asked who the homeowner was and they were told that it is Esther, who works at this museum, Botshabelo. When they found her, they invited her to be part of the exhibition auditions later in 1989.”

Two years later, in 1991, she became the first woman and first African to be invited to participate in the prestigious BMW Art Car Collection.

The car painted with typical Ndebele motifs made its historic return to South Africa earlier this year for the exhibition, after showing in major world cities for over 30 years.

“In fact, recently, BMW launched a car that is named after her.” Ntobeko says.

The exhibition also features paintings, historic photographs and a short film. Ntombela, the curator of the exhibition, placed the image of the house that led to Mahlangu’s meteoric rise in art at the entrance of the museum.

A model of the family home that Dr. Esther Mahlangu first painted, revealing her extraordinary skill. / Photo. Iziko Museum

“It is said that the house is not really a house but actually a factory. She speaks about how this particular building always had lights. Remember this is a period where electricity was not afforded to black communities,” Ntombela notes adding that “migration of labor is also embedded in that piece.”

“When we see her work we see patterns and think it's all geometry and that it's all simplified. But in actual fact, there is much more than one can read through her work. I think we're going to be unpacking and analysing her work for a long time.”

Being a curator of an exposition staged for a virtuoso like Dr. Mahlangu is no mean feat. Dr. Ntobeko, a lecturer in Witwatersrand University, least expected an invitation to curate such an exhibition.

“It's every young professional’s dream to be given a task and trust to work with such a legend obviously with a lot of responsibility as well.”

Ntobeko’s work was cut out. Weave Dr. Mahlangu’s 50 years of work into a story that offers a comprehensive, yet intimate insight into her vast and vibrant career.

“So how do you best represent someone who is so huge? How do you make sure that you represent her work in the best possible light without distorting its experience?”

The 88-year-old artist turned up for a preview of the exhibition on February 14 and graced the official opening on the 17th of February 2024.

Dr. Esther Mahlangu addresses the public during the opening of the exhibition in her honour.  Photo: Iziko Museum

“She's healthy. She's jumping up and down,” Ntobeko says describing the octogenarian’s physical stature.

“How she remains true to the Ndebele traditions in her work is a huge reminder of how we needn't be swayed by altering our works to really resemble Western imaging.”

Ntobeko reckons that Dr. Mahlangu has shown that entrusting indigenous knowledge like that passed down to her by her mother and grandmother has a place in the world.

“This is a huge achievement for an African artist because she's 88 and she's been able to show us what is possible, how the world is able to understand what we give to them from the place of indigeneity,” she adds.

Dr. Mahlangu continues her artistic career to this day and has taken several young girls under her wings.

“What is most important to me is to have formal educational schools and facilities to teach African art. That is a dream I am building towards,” Mahlangu’s Instagram post reads.

TRT Afrika