A leading South African artist is on a mission to preserve her culture through her world-renowned creations. 81-year-old Esther Mahlangu has been painting since she was 10 years old. She is known for bold, large-scale artworks that reference her Ndebele heritage.
Artist Esther Mahlangu or Gogo Esther as she is affectionately known is from the Ndebele Tribe. The Ndebele’s are known for colourful geometric patterns that adorn their houses.
The Ndebele Tradition of decorating their homes
These paintings are connected with the ancient tradition of decorating the house on the occasion of the right of passage for boys. When the young men come of age they leave the village for two weeks for an initiation ceremony. During this time, the young ladies of the tribe need to decorate their own houses. These colourful patterns are also used to announce events like births, deaths and even weddings. The painting technique is handed down from generation to generation. It is only taught to the woman and only painted by the women of the tribe.
Esther started painting at the young age of 10. She was taught by her grandma and mother. To this day she still uses traditional painting techniques such as painting with feathers and sticks.
Esther’s rise to fame
Esther first gained international recognition in 1989 at a European art exhibition “Magicians of the World.” In the early years that followed she exhibited work in countries around the world from Mexico to Switzerland to Australia.
The BMW Art Car 1991
She was later commissioned by German car giant BMW to create an art car. The BMW Art Car Project was introduced by the French racecar driver and auctioneer Hervé Poulain, who wanted to invite an artist to create a canvas on an automobile. Many other renowned artists throughout the world have created BMW Art Cars, including David Hockney, Jenny Holzer, Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Rauschenberg, Frank Stella, and Andy Warhol. To date, a total of 17 BMW Art Cars. Esther is not only the only African Artist ever invited to paint the car, but also the first woman to do so. To date, Esther has collaborated twice with BMW.
Belvedere Vodka & John Legend
Stars have been lining up to work with Mahlangu so it came as no surprise last year when she teamed up with Grammy Award winning singer and Belvedere Red ambassador John Legend. Her Ndebele artwork was displayed on the Belvedere bottles marked with the (Red) logo. 50 percent of the proceeds from the sale of those bottles go towards fighting Aids.
Winner of the Arts and Culture Veteran award at the Ubuntu Awards
She was nominated in the same category with Johnny Clegg for the award while Clegg received just above 500 votes, Mahlangu got over a thousand votes. She said in her speech: “I am delighted and appreciate being regarded as a veteran for arts and culture for my country and representing my province.”
On Monday, 9 April 2018, the University of Johannesburg decided to honour Mahlangu with an honourary doctorate for “her legacy as a cultural entrepreneur and educator, skillfully negotiating local and global worlds”.
Leaving a Legacy
Esther is passionate about sharing her knowledge with the younger generation. She wants to leave a legacy that lives on for generations to come. There are very few traditional Ndebele painters left because girls no longer stay at home. Youngsters are leaving for the big cities for jobs.