Esther Mahlangu

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Esther Mahlangu
Esther Mahlangu (cropped).jpg
Dr. Esther Mahlangu
Native name
Esther Nikwambi Mahlangu

(1935-11-11) 11 November 1935 (age 83)
The entrance gate to Esther Mahlangu's homestead

Dr Esther Mahlangu (born 11 November 1935) is a South African artist from the Ndebele nation.[1] She is known for her bold large-scale contemporary paintings that reference her Ndebele heritage.[2] Dr Esther Mahlangu was conferred with an honourary doctorate (Philosophiae Doctor honoris causa) by the University of Johannesburg, 9 April 2018.[3]

Early life[edit]

Esther Nikwambi Mahlangu was born on 11 November 1935 in Middelburg, Mpumalanga, South Africa, and belongs to the South Ndebele people.[4] Mahlangu began painting at 10 years of age, and was taught the skill of mural painting by her mother and grandmother,[2] following a tradition of her native South Ndebele people for females to paint the exterior of houses. It is in this cultural tradition where Mahlangu began her artistic journey.[5]

Artistic career[edit]

Mahlangu's BMW Art Car

Mahlangu's art references patterns found in clothing and jewellery of the Ndebele people.[2] The patterns she uses are typically very colourful and geometric. Her paintings are large in scale.[6]

Mahlangu first gained international attention in 1989 at a European art exposition titled Magiciens de la terre (Magicians of the World).[2][5] Later in 1991, she 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" and was painted with typical motifs of the Ndebele tribe.[2][5] She was the first non-Western person and female to design one of these art cars.[2][7] The car was later exhibited at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, DC in 1994. Between 1980 and 1991 she was a resident at the Botshabelo open-air museum, which presents Ndebele culture to visitors.

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 African artists whose art is often exhibited internationally. 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.


Mahlangu follows a local tradition through which this particular type of painting technique is handed down in the family, communicated, learned and transmitted only by women (in the past). These paintings are closely connected with the ancient tradition of decorating the houses on the occasion of the rite of passage for boys. Between 18 and 20 years of age, the youth of the tribe go to "a school of circumcision", the ritual that confirm their passage to adulthood. To celebrate this event the women completely repaint the inside and the outside of their houses with a preparation of cow dung and natural pigments. Brightly coloured acrylic paints are also applied in designs outlined by black lines. Although seemingly simple, the geometric abstraction that is revealed by these paintings is underscored by the constant repetition and symmetry of such simple shapes that make the whole work 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 her traditions, Mahlangu has applied the designs to various objects including canvas, sculpture, ceramics, automobiles and airplanes. She has also collaborated with various brands like BMW, Fiat, EYTYS, Melissa's, Beleverde and the British Museum.

Present day[edit]

Esther Mahlangu's 1991 BMW Artcar was on view at the British Museum as part of 'South Africa: the art of a nation', from 27 October 2016 - 27 February 2017. The new BMW Individual 7 series with unique internal wooden trims painted by her was exhibited at Frieze Art Fair 2016 with accompanying exhibition of work co-curated by BMW and 34FineArt. She recently completed a special edition premium Belvedere Vodka bottle design (50% of all profits to help fight HIV/AIDS in Africa). As an artist in residence, Mahlangu was commissioned in 2014 by the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts to create two large works of art.[2]

Mahlangu directs a school which teaches young girls not only painting but also the technique of painting designs on particular compositions of beads.[8] 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.

Esther Mahlangu has worked tirelessly exposing and developing her talent travelling around the world, and she is very passionate about sharing her knowledge with the younger generation so that she leaves a legacy that lives on for generations to come.

Exhibitions and projects[edit]

Solo exhibitions
  • 2016 Esther Mahlangu Individual 7 series BMW and accompanying exhibition co-curated by BMW and 34FineArt, Frieze Art Fair, London, UK
  • 2015 Esther Mahlangu 80, curated by 34FineArt, UCT Irma Stern Museum, Cape Town, SA
  • 2014 Esther Mahlangu: An Artistic Residency, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Virginia, USA
  • 2012 Overlay, 34FineArt, Cape Town, SA
  • 2010 Centro Espositivo St. Art, Calenzano, Italy
  • 2008 Esther Mahlangu: Reacquiring, The Kyle Kauffman Gallery, New York, USA
  • 2007 Esther Mahlangu 2007, 34LONG, Cape Town, SA
  • 2007 Why Africa?, Fiat 500, Turin, Italy
  • 2005 Esther Mahlangu, 34LONG, Cape Town, SA
  • 2003 Esther Mahlangu 2003, curated by 34FineArt, UCT Irma Stern Museum, Cape Town, SA
  • 1998 Museum of Oceanian and African Art, Paris, France
  • 1997 BA Airways Tail paintings, UK
  • 1991 BMW Art Cars Commission, Germany
Selected exhibitions
  • 2015 Imibala Gallery, Somerset West, SA
  • 2015 Sneaker design with Swedish Company Eytys, Paris Fashion Week, France
  • 2015 40 years of BMW Art Cars, BMW Museum, Munchen, Germany
  • 2014 Traditional African Murals, Museum of African Art, Belgrade, Serbia
  • 2014 Look Mickey!, 34FineArt, Cape Town, SA
  • 2014 Les Magiciens de la Terre, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, France
  • 2014 Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao, Spain
  • 2014 Cape Town Art Fair, Cape Town, SA
  • 2013 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair, London, UK
  • 2013 Urban Interpretation, Graffik Gallery, London, UK
  • 2013 FourWalls, 34FineArt, Cape Town, SA
  • 2012 Art Drive! Exhibition, Great Eastern Street Car Park in Shoreditch, London, UK
  • 2012 Urban Interpretation, 34FineArt, Cape Town, SA
  • 2012 Blend, 34FineArt, Cape Town, SA
  • 2011 Durban Tourism Indaba, Durban, SA
  • 2011 Ensemble, 34FineArt, Cape Town, SA
  • 2011 ArtMonaco'1 1, Monaco
  • 2011 Museum of Arts and Design, New York, USA
  • 2010 Africa. Objetos y Sujetos, Teatro Fernan Gomez, Centro de Arte, Madrid, Spain
  • 2010 ATASA Trust Southern Africa Handcraft & Ndebele Art Exhibition, Newtown, SA
  • 2010 La mostra sulla Regina d'Africa Esther Mahlangu, Napoli, Italy
  • 2010 Museum of Arts and Design, New York City, USA
  • 2010 FIFA Official Artist, Italy
  • 2009 Sortileges, Fondation pour L'art Contemporain, Claudine et Jean-Marc Salomon, Alex, France
  • 2009 3rd Moscow Biennale of Contemporary Art, Moscow, Russia
  • 2009 - 2010 Africa? Una nuova storia, Complesso del Vittoriano, Rome, Italy
  • 2008 The Speed Art Museum, Louisville, Kentucky, USA
  • 2008 Denver Museum of Art, Denver, Colorado, USA
  • 2008 Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, USA
  • 2007 Why Africa?, Pinacoteca Giovanni e Marella Agnelli, Turin, Italy
  • 2007 Painted the New Fiat 500 - "Why Africa?", The Pigozzi Collection, Italy
  • 2007 SA Art—Signs, Danubiana Meulensteen Art Museum, Bratislava, Slovakia
  • 2007 Berlin and Beyond Art in Public Places, Florida, USA
  • 2007 Durban Art Gallery, Durban, SA
  • 2007 Orlando Museum of Art, Orlando, USA
  • 2007 The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, Maryland, USA
  • 2007 Tacoma Museum of Art, Tacoma, Washington, USA
  • 2006 100% African; The Jean Pigozzi Contemporary African Art Collection, Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao, Spain
  • 2006 Indianapolis Museum of Art, Indianapolis, Indiana, USA
  • 2006 Memory Innovation Tradition, 34 LONG, Cape Town, SA
  • 2006 Roppongi Hills Art Museum, Tokyo, Japan
  • 2006 Beyond Lilith: The Sacred Feminine, Scuderie Aldobrandini Frascati, Roma, Italy
  • 2005 Arts of Africa, Grimaldi Forum, Monaco
  • 2005 Yokohama Triennial, Japan
  • 2005 New Identities Contemporary Art from South Africa, Pretoria Art Museum & Johannesburg Art Gallery, SA
  • 2005 Galleria Spacia, Italy
  • 2005 South Africa-USA Native American Exchange Project, Institute of American Indian Arts, Santa Fe, USA
  • 2005 Project Row Houses, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, USA
  • 2005 African Art Now: Masterpieces from the Jean Pigozzi Collection, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, USA
  • 2005 National Museum of African Art, The Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C., USA
  • 2004 New Identities Contemporary Art from South Africa, Museum Bochum, Germany
  • 2004 New Orleans Jazz Festival, South African Stage, New Orleans, USA
  • 2003 Dentro e Fuori le Mura, Fabbrica Eos, Milano, Italy
  • 2002 Passport to South Africa, Centro Culturale Trevi, Bolzano, Italy
  • 2002 The Art of Colour, Knysna Fine Art Gallery, Knysna, SA
  • 2001 Arte Africana Contemporanea, Galleria d'arte Spazia, Bologna, Italy
  • 2001 Galleria Cavellini, Brescia, Italy
  • 2001 South Africa Today, The Helsinki Fair Centre, Finland
  • 2000 5th Biennale of Contemporary Art, Lyons, France
  • 2000 Dialogue of Cultures, EXPO 2000, Hannover, Germany
  • 1999 The Three Rivers Art Festival, Pittsburgh, USA
  • 1999 <<REWIND>>FAST FORWARD.ZA, Van Reekum Museum, Apeldoorn, Netherlands
  • 1998 Solo Exhibition, Musee des Arts d'Afrique et d'Oceanie, Paris, 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 Woman in the Arts, Washington D.C., USA
  • 1997 Ndebele Images - Then and Now, National Arts Club, New York, USA
  • 1997 Oog op Zuidelijke Afrika, Het Afrika Museum, Berg en Dal, Netherlands
  • 1997 Portal to America, Installation, Spoleto Festival, Charleston, South Carolina, USA
  • 1997 African Immigrant Folklife Festival, Washington D.C., USA
  • 1996 Parish Gallery, Georgetown, USA
  • 1996 Exhibition for the Congressional Black Caucus, Washington D.C., USA
  • 1996 Armour J. Blackburn Centre, Howard University, Washington D.C., USA
  • 1996 World Bank, Washington D.C., USA
  • 1996 Mural - Ministry of Finance Building, Pretoria, SA
  • 1996 Mural - Alexandra Township Stadium, Johannesburg, SA
  • 1995 BMW Art Cars and Paintings Exhibition, Sydney, Australia
  • 1995 Group Exhibition, Market Theatre, Johannesburg, SA
  • 1994 BMW Art Cars Collection, National Museum of Woman in the Arts, Washington D.C., USA
  • 1994 Mural - National Museum of Woman in the Arts, Washington D.C., USA
  • 1994 Mural - Ndebele College of Education, KwaNdebele, SA
  • 1994 Mural - African Festival, Lisbon, Portugal
  • 1994 Mural - European Inventive Business Travel Meetings Exhibition, Geneva, Switzerland
  • 1994 Out of Africa, Musee des Beaux-Arts de Nantes, France
  • 1993 La Grande Verite, Les Astres Africains, Nantes Fine Arts Museum, Nantes, France
  • 1993 European Inventive Business Travel Meetings Exhibition, Lisbon, Portugal
  • 1993 Geneva International Exhibition, Geneva, Switzerland
  • 1992 Comme des Garcons, Tokyo, Japan; New York, USA; and Paris, France
  • 1992 Out of Africa, Saatchi Gallery, London, UK
  • 1992 Fire Screen, Civic Theatre, Johannesburg, SA
  • 1992 BMW Art Cars, Documenta 9, Kassel, Germany
  • 1992 Africa Hoy, Groninger Museum, Groningen, Netherlands
  • 1992 Africa Hoy, Cultural Centre of Contemporary Art, Mexico City, Mexico
  • 1991 BMW Art Cars, Johannesburg, Durban, Cape Town, SA
  • 1991 Painting columns in Building, Tokyo, Japan
  • 1991 Fashion Collection, Tokyo, Japan
  • 1991 Ny Afrikansk Billedkunst, Copenhagen, Denmark
  • 1991 Africa Hoy, Centro Atlantico de Arte Moderno, Las Palmas, de Gran Canaria, Spain
  • 1990 Caravan Auto Show, Lavante, France
  • 1990 Bordeaux Festival, Bordeaux, France
  • 1990 Mural Painting, Rosebank Shopping Centre, SA
  • 1990 Mural Painting, Johannesburg School, SA
  • 1989 Centre de la Villette, Paris, France
  • 1989 Fine Arts Museum, Angoulême, France
  • 1989 Mural Painting, Musee des Beaux Arts, France
  • 1989 Les Magiciens de la Terre, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, France
  • Meulensteen Art Museum, Bratislava, Slovakia
  • The Pigozzi Collection, Geneva, Switzerland
  • Johnnic Communications Management Services Collection, Johannesburg, SA
  • Museum Bochum, Bochum, Germany
  • South African National Gallery, Iziko Museums, Cape Town, SA
  • BROKER Art Collection, Belgium
  • BOE Bank, Cape Town, SA
  • Musee des Arts d'Afrique et d'Oceanie, Paris, France
  • Botshabelo Museum, Botshabelo, SA
  • BMW Art Cars Collection, Germany
  • World Bank Collection, USA
  • Museum of Modern Art, Equatorial Guinea
  • BHP Billiton Collection, Johannesburg, SA
  • Roppongi Hills Art Museum, Japan
  • Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Virginia, USA
  • Museum Bochum, Germany
  • Pretoria Art Museum, Pretoria, SA
  • RE:CM Collection, Cape Town, SA
  • National Museum ofWoman in the Arts, Washington D.C., USA
  • Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, France
  • Musee des Beaux Arts, France
  • University of Cape Town, SA

Esther Mahlangu's work is also represented in numerous public and private collections.


  • 2018 Honorary doctorate from the University of Johannesburg[9]
  • 2015 The Lilizela Tourism Award, Roots and culture, SA
  • 2015 South African Traditional Music Achievement Awards, Life Time Achievement Award, SA
  • 2013 1st Mbokodo Award, SA
  • 2012 1st Mbokodo Award, South African Women in the Arts, SA
  • 2010 Increasing Access to the Arts Award - 13th annual BASA Awards, SA
  • 2007 The Heritage Award for Preservation and Promotion of South African Heritage and Culture, The Premier of KZN, SA
  • 2006 The Order of Ikhamanga (Silver), Government of South Africa, SA
  • 2006 National Arts and Culture Trust, Lifetime Achievement Award, SA
  • 2001 Arts and Culture Award, Art Promotion, SA
  • 2001 Pan African Broadcasting, Heritage and Achievement Award (PABHA), SA
  • 2001 Radio Ndebele Award, SA
  • 1999 Mpumalanga Arts and Culture Award, SA
  • 1997 Nassau County Commendation, New York, USA
  • 1997 Incorporated Village of Hempstead Citation, Hempstead, New York, USA
  • 1997 Ministry of Culture and Communication, Centre de la Villette, France
  • 1996 Mpumalanga Sport Premier's Culture Award, SA
  • 1988 Radio Ndebele Award, SA

Selected publications and references[edit]

  • "In conversation with Esther Mahlangu", ARTsouthAfrica (2015)
  • Cantz, H. (2005), New Identities, Zeitgenossische Kunst Aus Sudafrika, Museum Bochum, Germany, ISBN 978-3-77571 489-1
  • Courtney-Clarke, M, (1986), Ndebele, London: Thames & Hudson, ISBN 0-500-28387-7
  • de Jager, F. R., & A. G. Loots (2003), Esther Mahlangu 2003, Vgallery, Cape Town, ISBN 0-620-30600-9
  • de Jager, F. R., & A. G. Loots (2015), Esther Mahlangu 80, 34FineArt, Cape Town, ISBN 978-0-620-67031 -9
  • Duke, L. (1994), "The Living Art of Esther Mahlangu: On a D.C. Street, a South African Master Paints in the Tradition of Her Tribe", The Washington Post, 4 September 1994
  • Grenier, C. (2013), Multiple Modernities: 1905-1970, Centre Pompidou, France, ISBN 978-2-84426-653-8
  • Guggenheim Bilbao Museum TF Editores & FMGB (2006), '100% Africa' [Exhibition Catalogue]
  • Hansen, L. (1995/1996), 'Memory and Amnesia: Transformation of the Vernacular Architecture of the Southern Ndebele in South Africa' [Unpublished Thesis], Post Graduate Centre for Human Settlements, Katholieke Universiteit Leuven
  • James, D., & C. J. van Vuuren (1998), "The Ndebele", in Magubane, P. (ed.), Vanishing Cultures of South Africa, Cape Town: Struik, ISBN 978-0-847-82097-9
  • Loubser, A, (1994), "Recent Changes in Wall Painting amongst the Ndzundza as an Indication of Social Changes amongst AmaNdebele Women" (unpublished Honors Dissertation), The University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg
  • Magnin, A., & J. Soulillou (1996), Contemporary Art of Africa, London: Thames & Hudson, ISBN 0-500-01 71 3-1
  • Magubane, P., & S. Klopper (2001), African Heritage, Arts and Crafts, Cape Town: Struik, ISBN 1 -86872-51 6-2
  • Martin, J.-H. (1989), Les Magiciens de la Terre, Paris: Editions du Centre Pompidou, ISBN 978-2858504985
  • Martin, J.-H., & A. Cohen-Solal (2014), Les Magiciens de la Terre: Retour sur une exposition legendaire, Editions Xavier Barral, Centre Pompidou, Paris, ISBN 978-2-84426-693-4
  • Magnin, A., de Lima Greene, A., & A. J. Wardlaw (2005), African Art Now: Masterpieces from the Jean Pigozzi Collection (exhibition catalogue), Merrel, ISBN 978-0890902950
  • McGlone, P., "South African muralist Esther Mahlangu keeps traditions alive", The Washington Post, 8 October 2014
  • Mountain, A. (1995), Ndebele Artist Nation, Cape Town: Struik, ISBN 1-86825-848-3
  • Orford, M. (ed.), (2006), Life and Soul: Portraits of Women who Move South Africa, Cape Town: Double Storey
  • Parise, A. (2010), Esther Mahlangu La Regina d'Africa, Colognola Al Colli
  • Powel, I., & M. Lewis (1995), Ndebele: A People and their Art, Cape Town: Struik, ISBN 978-1 86825691 4
  • Rousset, J. M. (1996), Contemporary Art of Africa: Esther Mahlangu & Francina Ndimande, Magnin, A., & J. Soulillou (eds)
  • Africa Africa: Vibrant New Art from a Dynamic Continent [Exhibition Catalogue], Tobu Museum of Art, Tokyo
  • Williamson, S. (2009), South African Art Now, Harper Design, ISBN 978-0061 34351 3


  1. ^ "The Living Art of Esther Mahlangu". The Washington Post. 4 September 1994. Retrieved 29 February 2012.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g "Ndebele artist Mahlangu uses bold colors, striking graphics to honor African heritage". The Washington Post. 3 October 2014. Retrieved 1 April 2015.
  3. ^ Mphande, Joy (9 April 2018). "Esther Mahlangu gets conferred with an Honourary Doctorate". Zalebs.
  4. ^ Magnin, André; Jacques Soulillou (1996). "Esther Mahlangu". Contemporary Art of Africa. H. N. Abrams. pp. 46 ff. ISBN 978-0-8109-4032-1.
  5. ^ a b c "South African artist painting commissioned murals at VMFA". RVA News. 17 September 2014. Retrieved 1 April 2015.
  6. ^ "Esther Mahlangu: An Artistic Residency - Exhibitions".
  7. ^ "12 - Esther Mahlangu". 13 May 2011.
  8. ^, Code Like Clockwork (Pty) Ltd,. "Esther Mahlangu Ndebele Art School - Participant - Open Africa - Do Travel Differently".
  9. ^ "LOOK: Esther Mahlangu receives her honorary doctorate | IOL News". Retrieved 2018-04-09.

External links[edit]