Esther Mahlangu was born in 1935 in Middelburg, Mpumalanga, South Africa and belongs to the South Ndebele people. Mahlangu began painting at ten years old, following the teachings of her mother and grandmother. A tradition of her native South Ndebele people is for females to paint the exterior of houses. It is in this cultural tradition where Mahlangu began her artistic journey.
Mahlangu's art references patterns found in clothing and jewelry of the Ndebele people. The colors and patterns she uses are typically very colorful and geometric. Her paintings are large in scale.
Mahlangu first gained international attention in 1989 at a European artist exposition titled Magiciens de la terre (Magicians of the World). Later in 1991, Mahlangu was commissioned by BMW to create an art car, as other BMW Art Car creators had done before (including Andy Warhol, David Hockney and Frank Stella). The car, a BMW 525i, was the first "African Art Car" which was painted with typical motifs of the Ndebele tribe. She was the first non-Western person and female to design one of these art cars. The car was later exhibited at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, DC in 1994.
Her designs were also reproduced in 1997 on the tails of British Airways planes and more recently the same technique was used by the artist to paint on the new Fiat 500 on the occasion of the exhibition "Why Africa?" (2007, Turin).
Mahlangu is one of the few African artists whose art is often exhibited on the international scene. Her works are in major private collections including that of The Contemporary African Art Collection (CAAC) of Jean Pigozzi and in many Western museums. Despite being an internationally recognized artist, Esther Mahalangu lives in her village in close contact with her culture.
The artist follows a local tradition that states that this particular type of painting technique is handed down in the family, communicated, learned and transmitted only by women. These paintings are closely connected with the ancient tradition of decorating the houses on the occasion of the rite of passage for boys. Between eighteen and twenty years of age, the youth of the tribe went to "a school of circumcision", the ritual which confirmed their passage to adulthood. To celebrate this event the women completely repainted the inside and the outside of their houses with a preparation of cow dung and chalk using a vast repertoire of traditional figures. These designs were characterized by the presence of repeated geometric shapes of bright colors, bound by a thin black border in distinct contrast with the white background, a very clear path. Although seemingly simple, the geometric abstraction that is revealed by these paintings is underscored by the constant repetition of such simple shapes that make the whole work, however, quite complex.
The art of Esther Mahlangu highlights the tension between local and global, between the anchor and detachment. Despite continuing to use the same "artistic vocabulary" closely tied to the traditions of her race, Mahlangu has dramatically changed the media and techniques with which they work. The artist, in addition to using industrial pigments and colors, decorates using lines and geometric paintings for sculptures, ceramics, automobiles (Mainly BMW's) and even airplanes.
Mahlangu directs a school which teaches young girls not only painting but also the technique of painting designs on particular compositions of beads. The tradition is not a static entity. As the work of the same Mahlangu suggests, "tradition" is a mobile field, future-oriented and ready to incorporate diverse stimuli. In fact, although South Africa is now one of the African States which is able to facilitate and promote the work of their artists both nationally and internationally with the likes of the biennial event in Johannesburg, the work of Esther Mahlangu is even more courageous because she was born and grew up in political and social turmoil.
- 2008 Esther Mahlangu: Reacquiring, The Kyle Kauffman Gallery, New York, USA
- 2007 Esther Mahlangu 2007 34 LONG, Cape Town, South Africa
- 2003 Esther Mahlangu, UCT Irma Stern Museum, Cape Town, South Africa
- 1998 Museum of Oceanian and African Art, Paris, France
- 2007-2008 Why Africa?, Pinacoteca Giovanni e Marella Agnelli, Turin, Italy
- 2006-2007 100% Africa, Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao, Spain
- 2005 Arts of Africa, Grimaldi Forum, Monaco, France
- 2005 African Art Now : Masterpieces from the Jean Pigozzi Collection, Museum of Fine Art Houston, USA
- 2003 Dentro e Fuori le Mura, Fabbrica Eos, Milan, Italy
- 2002 Passport to South Africa, Centro Culturale Trevi, Bolzano, Italy
- 2002 The Art of Colour, Knysna Fine Art Gallery, Knysna, South Africa
- 2001 Galleria Cavellini, Brescia, Italy
- 2001 South Africa Today, The Helsinki Fair Centre, Finland
- 2000 Lyon 5th Biennal of Contemporary Art, Halle Tony Garnier, Lyon, France
- 1998 Africa Africa Vibrant New Art from a Dynamic Continent, Tobu Museum of Art, Tokyo, Japan
- 1997 Exhibit Gallery, Philadelphia, USA
- 1997 York College, Los Angeles, California, USA
- 1997 Mural for National Museum of Women in The Arts, National Museum, Washington DC, USA
- "The Living Art of Esther Mahlangu". The Washington Post. September 4, 1994. Retrieved 29 February 2012.
- "Ndebele artist Mahlangu uses bold colors, striking graphics to honor African heritage". Washington Post. 3 Oct 2014. Retrieved 1 April 2015.
- Magnin, André; Jacques Soulillou (1996). "Esther Mahlangu". Contemporary art of Africa. H. N. Abrams. pp. 46 ff. ISBN 978-0-8109-4032-1.
- "South African artist painting commissioned murals at VMFA". RVA News. 17 Sep 2014. Retrieved 1 April 2015.