Esther Mahlangu

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Esther Mahlangu
Dr. Esther Mahlangu signs a recently completed work.
Esther Nikwambi Mahlangu

(1935-11-11) 11 November 1935 (age 88)
NationalitySouth African
StyleNdebele house painting
The entrance gate to Esther Mahlangu's homestead

Esther Mahlangu (born 11 November 1935) is a South African artist.[1] She is known for her bold large-scale contemporary paintings that reference her Ndebele heritage.[2] She is one of South Africa's best known artists.

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.[3] Mahlangu began painting at 10 years of age,[4] and was taught the skill of mural painting by her mother and grandmother,[2] following a tradition of the South Ndebele people for females to paint the exterior of houses. It is in this cultural tradition where Mahlangu first began her artistic journey.[5] She had eight younger siblings, which was made up of six boys and three girls (including her). She and her husband had three sons. Later on, she lost her husband and two out of her three sons. She was an employee at the Botshabelo Museum before becoming an artist.

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.[6]Esther Mahlangu used brushes made from chicken feathers. She is known for translating and substituting the traditional surfaces for Ndebele mural art, adobe cow-dung wall, with canvas, and eventually, metal alloys. Mahlangu’s signature pattern of white bounded lines set diagonally or shaped like chevrons. She signs all of her beadwork in beads with the initials “E M”.[7] As an artist, her “...composition is more compact, more engaging and complex than that of her contemporaries, the borders more complicated. She has a tendency to frame her pattern motifs.”[8]

Mahlangu first gained international attention in 1989 at a French 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 Ndebele motifs.[2][5][9] 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.[10]


  • 1992
    • Carav Cultural Center of Contemporary Art
    • Comme des Garcons (Tokyo, Japan; New York, USA; Paris, France)
    • Documenta 9
    • Civic Theatre
  • 1991
    • Caravan Auto Show (Lavante)
    • BMW Art Cars and Painting Exhibition (Johannesburg, Durban, Cape Town)
  • 1993
    • Geneva International Exhibition (Geneva)
    • Nantes Fine Arts Museum
  • 1994
    • Musee des Beauz- Arts de Nantes (1994)
  • 1995
    • BMW Art Cars and Painting Exhibition
    • Market Theatre
  • 1996
    • World Bank
    • Armour J. Blackburn Centre, Howard University
    • Parish Gallery
    • Congressional Black Caucus
  • 1997
    • Het Afrika Museum
    • National Arts Club
    • African Immigrant Folklife Festival
    • Spoleto Festival
    • York College Galleries
  • 1998
    • Tobu Museum of Art
  • 1999
    • Van Reekum Museum
  • 2000
    • 5th Biennal of Contemporary Art
  • 2001
    • The Helsinki Fair Center
  • 2002
    • Centro Culturale Trevi
  • 2003
    • The Irma Stern Museum
  • 2005
    • Museum of Fine Arts
    • Grimaldi Forum
    • Pretoria Art Museum
    • Smithsonian Institution
  • 2006
    • The Jean Pigozzi Contemporary African Art Collection[12]
    • Tacoma Museum of Art
    • Roppongi Hills Art Museum
    • Scuderie Aldobrandini Frascati
  • 2007    
    • Art in Public Spaces
    • The Walters Art Museum
    • Durban Art Gallery
    • Pinacoteca Giovanni e Marella Agnelli
  • 2008
    • Denver Museum of Art
  • 2009
    • Complesso Monumentale del Vittoriano\
  • 2011
    • Museum of Arts and Design
  • 2013
    • 34 Fine Art
  • 2014
    • Museum of African Art (2014)
  •  2015    
    • The Irma Stern Museum
    • Amref Health Africa Artball
  • 2016
    • Frieze Art Fair
  • 2017
    • Cape Town Art Fair (2017)
  • 2019
    • National Museum Oliewenhuis
    • Cape Town Art Fair
  • 2020
    • Melrose Gallery
    • Investec Cape Town Art Fair
  • 2021
    • Almine Rech
  • 2022
    • Alpha 137 Online Gallery
    • Melrose Gallery

Other exhibitions[edit]

Mahlangu's BMW Art Car

Between 1980 and 1991 she was a resident at the Botshabelo Historical Village open-air museum, which presents and educates the visitors about the Ndebele culture.[13]

Ndebele designs were also reproduced in 1997 on the tails of British Airways planes[14] 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 Mahlangu still presently lives in her village in close and constant 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 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 and automobiles. 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 in 2016 with an accompanying exhibition of work co-curated by BMW and 34FineArt.[15] 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.[16][17] 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.[18]


On 19 March 2022 Mahlangu was a victim of house robbery where she was attacked and assaulted, her house was ransacked personal possessions were stolen including a gun and an undisclosed amount of money. The crime sparked outrage raising the alarm about the high crime rate in South African and manhunt was launched by the South African police to catch the perpetrator.[19][20][21] The suspect was apprehended and put into custody until April 20, 2022 for a formal bail application. An accomplice was released on bail and had a court hearing on May 10.[22]

Awards and honours[edit]


  1. ^ Duke, Lynne (4 September 1994). "The Living Art of Esther Mahlangu". The Washington Post. Archived from the original on 15 March 2016. Retrieved 29 February 2012.
  2. ^ a b c d e f McGlone, Peggy (3 October 2014). "Ndebele artist Mahlangu uses bold colors, striking graphics to honor African heritage". The Washington Post. Archived from the original on 15 March 2016. Retrieved 1 April 2015.
  3. ^ Magnin, André; Jacques Soulillou (1996). "Esther Mahlangu". Contemporary Art of Africa. H. N. Abrams. pp. 46 ff. ISBN 978-0-8109-4032-1.
  4. ^ Luckett, Helen (2019). Great Women Artists. London: Phaidon Press. p. 254. ISBN 978-0-7148-7877-5.
  5. ^ a b c Cushing, Nathan (17 September 2014). "South African artist painting commissioned murals at VMFA". RVA News. Retrieved 1 April 2015.
  6. ^ "Esther Mahlangu: An Artistic Residency". Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. Archived from the original on 29 July 2019. Retrieved 5 April 2022.
  7. ^ Jasper, Adam (2 January 2014). "Making Art Global (Part 2), 'Magiciens de la Terre' 1989, edited by Lucy Steeds et al.: London: Afterall, 2013. 304 pp., £14.95 (pbk), ISBN: 978-1-84638-118-8". Australian and New Zealand Journal of Art. 14 (1): 109–112. doi:10.1080/14434318.2014.936546. ISSN 1443-4318. S2CID 179016503.
  8. ^ Boyd, Craniv Ambolia (2017). "Ndebele Mural Art and the Commodification of Ethnic Style during the Age of Apartheid and Beyond". Freie Universitaet Berlin (Germany): 123. ProQuest 1930946232 – via Publicly Available Content Database.
  9. ^ "12 - Esther Mahlangu". BMW Art Cars. 13 May 2011. Archived from the original on 22 March 2022. Retrieved 5 April 2022.
  10. ^ Cashdan, Marina (23 September 2016). "Esther Mahlangu Is Keeping Africa's Ndebele Painting Alive". Artsy. Retrieved 30 December 2019.
  11. ^ Levin, Kim (1 May 2001). "The Lyon Biennale". Nka Journal of Contemporary African Art. 2001 (13–14): 96–99. doi:10.1215/10757163-13-14-1-96. ISSN 1075-7163. S2CID 194087074.
  12. ^ African art now: masterpieces from the Jean Pigozzi Collection. 1 July 2005.
  13. ^ "Esther Mahlangu CV" (PDF). Esther Mahlangu. Retrieved 30 December 2019.
  14. ^ "Esther Mahlangu (1935 - )". The Presidency, The Republic of South Africa. Retrieved 30 December 2019.
  15. ^ Bode, Mathias. "BMW Individual 7 Series by Esther Mahlangu". Retrieved 4 April 2022.
  16. ^ "Esther Mahlangu Ndebele Art School - Participant - Open Africa - Do Travel Differently". Code Like Clockwork. Archived from the original on 9 March 2016. Retrieved 2 April 2015.
  17. ^ "Esther Mahlangu". South African History Online. Retrieved 30 December 2019.
  18. ^ Mun-Delsalle, Y.-Jean. "Esther Mahlangu, One Of South Africa's Most Famous Artists, Perpetuates Traditional Ndebele Painting". Forbes. Retrieved 30 December 2019.
  19. ^ "Manhunt launched for Esther Mahlangu's attacker | eNCA".
  20. ^ "Ndebele artist Esther Mahlangu assaulted, robbed of gun and money in her home".
  21. ^ "R50 000 offered for Dr Esther Mahlangu robbery suspect".
  22. ^ Maromo, Jonisayi (9 April 2022). "Esther Mahlangu robbery suspect remanded". Pretoria News (South Africa)/Pretoria News Weekend (South Africa). Retrieved 2 June 2022.
  23. ^ "Esther Mahlangu (1935 - ) | The Presidency". Retrieved 24 August 2022.
  24. ^ "Dr. Esther Mahlangu receives the first United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Southern Africa NGO & Multi-Stakeholder Award in recognition of inclusivity & empowerment". Ventures Africa. Retrieved 3 June 2022.
  25. ^ Mphande, Joy (9 April 2018). "Esther Mahlangu gets conferred with an Honourary Doctorate". Zalebs.

External links[edit]