South African Esther Mahlangu is one of art’s unlikeliest superstars. The 81-year-old hails from the South African province of Mpumalanga, part of the Ndebele tribe whose homes are famously adorned with colourful, geometric patterns, similarly complemented by the peoples’ dress. Mahlangu’s art is an extension of her ancient culture, and, for decades, has captured the attention and imagination of many in the art world.
In 2104, aged 78, she took part in a month-long residency at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts where she painted a couple of sizeable murals without the aid of sketches or rulers, or even a pre-planned idea of what the work would be. “My plan is here” she told the Washington Post through an interpreter as she tapped her temple with a ‘paint-splotched index finger’.
Among her most intriguing commissions came in 1991 when Mahlangu was invited by BMW to create artwork on a BMW 525i — the first woman and non-Western artist asked to do so. She joined a long, legendary list that includes luminaries such as David Hockney and Andy Warhol who have been tasked with decorating the BMW Art Car, a project established in 1975 when French racing driver Hervé Poulain hired Alexander Calder to paint his BMW for the Le Mans 24-Hour Race. Last year, the German firm asked Mahlangu back.
Just a couple of months ago a stretch of New York street was dedicated to her by way of a colourful mural, painted by locally-based artist Imani Shanklin Roberts, and featuring vibrant tribal Southern African symbols the artist says celebrate feminine energy. “Creating a mural in honour of an artist I’ve known all my life, in a city that isn’t welcoming, feels unreal,” said Roberts of the work. “It feels like an aligning moment many of us have when the universe co-creates with us and is in agreement with our path.”
The star of the show described it as a “special” moment in her storied career. Bangu Masisi, president of South Africa’s Tourism’s American Hub, was at the opening of the mural and praised Mahlangu “for her unique, colourful” paintings which have inspired many across the globe, adding that she “has also done an amazing job showcasing our cultures and will provide New Yorkers this summer with a sight of South Africa’s Ndebele culture”.
Ndebele are a group of indigenous people spread throughout South Africa mainly, and also Zimbabwe. Traditionally, the women adorn the outside of their homes with bold graphics that symbolise life celebrations such as births or weddings, as well as recording their ancestry. Mahlangu, who began painting aged 10 using a chicken feather as brush — and still does — has showcased these ancient techniques to the wider world. “We teach the young girls to paint for when they get married,” the artist told the Post. “If a girl goes to her in-laws and can’t paint properly, they will say she wasn’t taught well.”
Keen to keep her customs alive, even on her international travels she continues to wear the colourful dress of her people that includes metal rings around her neck and limbs, and beaded headband and apron–though she does sometimes don comfortable trainers — that all almost mirror her paintings. As a child, the artist has said that she came to the realisation that few outside the region would get the chance to see the wonderful creations of Ndebele and was overcome with the need to showcase the style to the world. “There has always been a fascination, demand, and admiration for art from Africa,” she told Artsy last year, “and the Ndebele style is one of the most significant styles of paintings that still resembles original shapes and forms. It is colourful and abstract and lends itself to incorporation into modern design.”
Mahlangu was first noticed by the international art scene in 1989 when her work was included as part of a group exhibition in Paris and her need to create has waned little since, neither has her grounded sensibility. “I wake up every morning, sweep the yard, feed the chickens, and then I start painting,” she told Sotheby’s earlier this year. “Every day.” And as for future ambitions? She is “waiting for that surprise”: “When someone shows up with whatever I haven’t done, that will be the moment I know.”
Words: Jamie Christian Desplaces