Meet 86-year-old South African Artist, Esther Mahlangu: A Legacy of Color and Tradition

by Joseph Omoniyi
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The bold strokes of her brush bring to life the geometric patterns and vibrant colors of her Ndebele heritage. Esther Mahlangu’s artwork has captivated audiences worldwide, making her one of South Africa’s most famous artists.

Born in 1935 in the rural town of Middelburg, Mpumalanga, Esther’s journey into art began at the tender age of ten, when she learned the art of mural painting from her mother and grandmother. A cultural tradition passed down for generations among the South Ndebele people, it was a way for women and girls to express themselves creatively by painting the exterior of their homes with bold, colorful designs.

Esther quickly became a skilled painter, using brushes made from chicken feathers to create intricate patterns that were unique to her community. Her paintings were large in scale and featured patterns found in the clothing and jewelry of the Ndebele people.

Esther’s art gained international recognition in 1989 when she was invited to participate in a French art exposition titled “Magiciens de la terre” (Magicians of the World). Her paintings, with their bold lines and striking colors, captivated the audience and established her as a renowned artist.

In 1991, Esther was commissioned by BMW to create an “Art Car,” joining a prestigious list of artists that included Andy Warhol, David Hockney, and Frank Stella. She created the first “African Art Car,” a BMW 525i painted with traditional Ndebele motifs. The car was later exhibited at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, DC, and at the British Museum in London.

Despite her success, Esther remained humble and dedicated to preserving her cultural heritage. Between 1980 and 1991, she was a resident at the Botshabelo Historical Village open-air museum, which presented and educated visitors about the Ndebele culture. Esther’s art was also featured on the tails of British Airways planes in 1997 and more recently on a Fiat.

Esther’s art has been exhibited in galleries and museums worldwide, including the Geneve International Exhibition, the British Museum, and the Smithsonian Institution. Her work has also been showcased at several art fairs, including the Cape Town Art Fair and the Frieze Art Fair.

As an artist, Esther’s compositions are more engaging and complex than those of her contemporaries. Her signature pattern of white bounded lines, set diagonally or shaped like chevrons, makes her work instantly recognizable. She signs all her beadwork with the initials “E M,” a subtle nod to her Ndebele heritage.

Esther’s life has been marked by tragedy, including the loss of her husband and two out of three sons. Yet through it all, she has remained dedicated to her art, using it as a way to preserve her cultural heritage and share it with the world. Today, Esther is a true inspiration, a testament to the power of art to transcend borders and bring people together.

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Joseph Omoniyi

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