Esther Mahlangu

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Esther Mahlangu
South African Ndebele art.jpg
Dr. Esther Mahlangu signs a recently completed work.
Esther Nikwambi Mahlangu

(1935-11-11) 11 November 1935 (age 86)
NationalitySouth African
StyleNdebele house painting
The entrance gate to Esther Mahlangu's homestead

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] Esther Mahlangu was conferred with an honorary 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 a farm located outside of Middelburg, Mpumalanga, South Africa, and belongs to the South Ndebele people.[4] Mahlangu began painting at 10 years of age,[5] and was taught the skill of mural painting by her mother and grandmother,[2] following a tradition of her native South Ndebele people for women and girls to paint the exterior of houses. It is in this cultural tradition where Mahlangu began her artistic journey.[6] She had eight younger siblings, which was made up of six boys and three girls (including her). She and her husband had 3 sons. Later on, she lost her husband and two out of her three sons.

Artistic career[edit]

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.[7]

Mahlangu first gained international attention in 1989 at a European art exposition titled Magiciens de la terre (Magicians of the World).[2][6] 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][6] She was the first non-Western person and female to design one of these art cars.[2][8] The car was later exhibited at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, DC in 1994. It was also exhibited at the British Museum, London in 2017.[9]

Mahlangu's BMW Art Car

Between 1980 and 1991 she was a resident at the Botshabelo open-air museum, which presents Ndebele culture to visitors.[10]

Her designs were also reproduced in 1997 on the tails of British Airways planes[11] 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, the British Museum and Rolls Royce.

Present day[edit]

Great Court, British Museum, November 2016

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.[12][13] 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.[14]


  1. ^ "The Living Art of Esther Mahlangu". The Washington Post. 4 September 1994. Retrieved 29 February 2012.[permanent dead link]
  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. ^ Phaidon Editors (2019). Great women artists. Phaidon Press. p. 254. ISBN 0714878774. {{cite book}}: |last1= has generic name (help)
  6. ^ a b c "South African artist painting commissioned murals at VMFA". RVA News. 17 September 2014. Retrieved 1 April 2015.
  7. ^ "Esther Mahlangu: An Artistic Residency - Exhibitions". Archived from the original on 2019-07-29. Retrieved 2021-07-16.
  8. ^ "12 - Esther Mahlangu". 13 May 2011.
  9. ^ Cashdan, Marina (23 September 2016). "Esther Mahlangu Is Keeping Africa's Ndebele Painting Alive". Artsy. Retrieved 30 December 2019.
  10. ^ "Esther Mahlangu CV" (PDF). Esther Mahlangu. Retrieved 30 December 2019.
  11. ^ "Esther Mahlangu (1935 - )". The Presidency, The Republic of South Africa. Retrieved 30 December 2019.
  12. ^, Code Like Clockwork (Pty) Ltd. "Esther Mahlangu Ndebele Art School - Participant - Open Africa - Do Travel Differently". Archived from the original on 2016-03-09. Retrieved 2015-04-02.
  13. ^ "Esther Mahlangu". South African History Online. Retrieved 30 December 2019.
  14. ^ Mun-Delsalle, Y.-Jean. "Esther Mahlangu, One Of South Africa's Most Famous Artists, Perpetuates Traditional Ndebele Painting". Forbes. Retrieved 30 December 2019.

External links[edit]