“I have always had the calling to paint and to teach art and the science and significance of Ndebele painting, it’s why we paint. In my community art school, not only do I teach young people the Ndebele art form, but also the language and cultural aspects of who they are and their identity along with the origins of the Ndebele people. You cannot separate art from the language, culture and the people, because that is where it came from.”
“Ndebele painting is a unique art-form and that is one of the reasons why I felt so strongly that I had to show my work to the rest of the world as I felt we had to take our place on the ‘art stage’ globally”, she says.
“Painting is Still My First Love”
Asked about what keeps her going and her spirit alive, Mam Esther doesn’t hesitate in saying that it is art – painting is her first love, that and passing her skills as an artist onto the next generation and preserving it for the world at large.
The Early Years:
“As a girl growing up in a traditional surrounding, it was expected of me to help my mother and grandmother with chores around the house. It was seen as part of our training for adult hood as there were no formal schools for us to go to. My mother and grandmother taught me to paint in the traditional styles when I was ten years old. I have been busy with it ever since and have always liked it.”
“When I am painting my heart is very wide, it reaches out. It makes me feel very, very happy. I was helping them decorate the walls of our house from a very early age and I soon realized that I enjoyed painting very much. It makes me feel happy when I am painting”. - Esther Mahlangu
Born in 1935 into a hardworking family a young Esther started painting under the tutelage of her mother, grandmother and aunts as many young girls entering their initiation phase did. The artist recalls her playful and curios nature and her knowledge that she was already quite different to other budding artists and playmates in her hometown of Weltevrede / Mabhoko, in Mpumalanga Province, South Africa.
Discovering Her Voice & Innate Talent:
Her maternal elders set her to task so she could give expression to her distinct ideas and technique around what was an ancient and sacred practice in her culture, handed down from mothers to daughters . The back walls of their compound would never be the same – and in time, because of her efforts, neither would the world’s understanding of isiNdebele painting - once of the African continent’s most sacred forms of painting.
Early Adopter and Creative Disruptor:
The magical unfolding of complex patterns from the makeshift brushes of her mother, grandmother and aunts so intrigued a curious and lively young Esther Mahlangu that she assumed the role of artistic disruptor at only age ten to try and make sense of them for herself and then reconfigure them - by painting over the elder women’s work!
While this did not go down well with the older women they saw a spark in her to re-imagine and her curiosity became a creative rebellion and giftedness which through her expression of art set her apart from her peers.
Painting as a modern, commercially-determined practice outside of its cultural expression hardly existed in Ndebele culture before the late 1980’s. Dr. Esther Mahlangu pioneered the artistic transference of Ndebele designs, till then virtually exclusively reserved for wall paintings, onto canvas and into the world’s art institutions and premier art collections and galleries.
In doing so she also ushered in a new way for women in her community to become financially active and independent through their skill and creativity. For the first time many women in villages could trade and sell their art, bead work and cultural objects and help support their families.
Whilst she had painted from a very early age, it was an invitation from French curators to participate in the ground breaking exhibition ‘Les Magiciens de la Terre’ at Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris in 1989 that gained her global recognition.
This led to an invitation to paint a BMW 525i for the BMW Art Car Collection in 1991, thereby becoming the first lady and first African to participate in this prestigious project alongside other notables of the likes of Andy Warhol, David Hockney, Roy Lichtenstein and Frank Stella amongst others.
This valuable international exposure resulted in regular invitations to exhibit at respected museums, galleries, art fairs and festivals and collaborations with global brands and celebrities that has seen Mam Esther travelling extensively both locally and internationally.
During the mid-career period, she was also invited to paint numerous murals which still exist in museums and other high profile venues and her works were acquired for many important private, museum and corporate collections.
When she was not travelling or creating her own artworks Mam Esther spent much of her time passing her skills via her own self-funded school in Mpumalanga.
Dr Mahlangu’s current focus professionally, apart from painting and global partnerships showcasing her work, is disseminating the art and cultural importance of isintu samaNdebele or Ndebele heritage and culture worldwide, and she hopes her efforts will encourage the carriers of artistic indigenous knowledge in other African countries to do the same.
She still paints and directs her studio who assist her in regards to the creation of her artworks. Her recent works have an even more modern feel which is not surprising considering her global experience and collaborations with contemporary brands.
She is also often invited to deliver workshops at art fairs or by art institutions and particularly enjoys sharing her knowledge and skills with younger audiences.
Dr Mahlangu has appointed The Melrose Gallery as her global representative and her gallerist is currently working on researching, gathering and archiving content for her Retrospective which is planned to launch in 2022 and to tour local and international museums and respected art institutions. Link to www.themelrosegallery.co.za
Her Commitment To Growing Contemporary African Art, Pride & Ubuntu:
Esther Mahlangu has spent a lifetime producing distinct artworks to critical acclaim at home and abroad. Her evolved technique as a painter originates within the ancient and sacred isiNdebele creative tradition of painting and large mural making which she has completely revolutionized over the span of six decades as a working artist, successfully situating it as a genre within painting traditions in the global context through her signature style.
The renowned isiNdebele artist is a champion for contemporary African art and declares that she is still happiest when painting and is regularly acknowledged for her significant contribution to contemporary abstract art globally.
Home, Remembering Our Identity Through Making Art & Creative Expression:
The artist exudes a deep pride not only in her own artistic journey and achievements, but for what her wok and international success has enabled for African and isiNdebele culture.
Esther lives in the village of Mabhoko in the KwaMhlanga district in Mpumalanga Province. Whenever she is not touring or exhibiting overseas, she stays at home, walking around the house bare - foot, tending her small patch of corn and keeping busy with what she likes most, painting.
Her passion in life is to educate and teach not only people from around the world about her culture and art but also the local girls, ensuring that this fragile culture won’t disappear. She has started a ‘School for Ndebele Art’ which she funds herself from the sale of her paintings and other commercially driven initiatives.
The Ndebele Nation:
The Ndebele people are divided into 3 main groups being; the Southern Transvaal Ndebele, the Northern Transvaal Ndebele and the Ndebele people of Zimbabwe. Dr Mahlangu is part of the Southern Ndebele nation who now live in Gauteng and Mpumalanga. The Southern Ndebele are acclaimed for their house-painting, beadwork and ornamentation.
“When looking at a Ndebele painting or mural, people get a smile of amazement on their faces. When they watch me paint, they can’t believe that I don’t use a ruler to paint the lines, and that my hand is so steady, even at my age. If people see the bright colours, they are happy. And it makes me happy as well, as I love to paint - it is in my heart and in my blood!”.
The Ndebele people of South Africa and Zimbabwe are widely revered for their distinct wall paintings which markedly distinguishes them from other cultural groups on the African continent.
This aspect of isiNdebele cultural practice is preserved indigenous knowledge retained from their Zimbabwean ancestry and roots.
Colonial-era, pre-independence oversimplification in describing this rich and complex form reduced it to be mere ‘house painting and decoration’ in isiNdebele culture. One only has to look at the world’s response to one of the pioneering artist, Esther Mahlangu when she debuted her paintings abroad to fully appreciate the real impact and value of her work and its immense contribution to shifting perceptions about art originating in Africa.
The art of the Ndebele nation is traditionally handed from mother to daughter. One is only deemed to be good marriage material if you are able to paint a straight line with a steady hand. Homes are decorated and are a symbol of great pride.
House Painting and Resistance:
In the mid-18th Century the Ndzundza, or Southern Ndebele went to war with the Boers and their loss resulted in considerable hardship. The people used symbols painted on their huts to express their grief and to communicate with their people. They were therefore a form of resistance art although the Boers saw these as merely cultural decorative art and did not understand their significance.
It was typically the females who practiced the artform and passed their skills to the next generation. A well painted house with straight lines was a symbol of pride as it was said to illustrate that the female of the household was a good mother and wife.
The Language of Symbol and Colour:
“There has always been a fascination, demand, and admiration for art from Africa, and the Ndebele painting is one of the most significant styles of painting that still resembles original shapes and forms. Its colourful and abstract and lends itself to incorporation into modern design.” - Esther Mahlangu
The recognizable and popular motif / razor blade `ZigZag’ pattern that emerges often amongst the intricate mathematically balanced patterns and shapes in Esther’s work is part of her signature style.
The artist is renowned for having taken traditional patterns common to her traditional cultural context and reimagining them uniquely to express her own style. Colours and shapes have different meanings and communicate wealth, health, prosperity and the like.
The rich and Earthy colours inherent in isiNdebele art are a form of call-and-response to the very real colour symphony echoed in nature itself. The original colours women used to paint are a spectrum evocative, organic shades of sunburnt earth; tilled soil and ochres, raw deep clay reds, verdant rainforests; softly wistful wheat and maize fields or pale grass plains to burnt orange sunsets and pale or deep blue skies, or sunset and sunrises in oranges and vibrant splashes of colour contrasted with the raw hues of Earth.
However with technology and the ranges of new coloured paints and contemporary mediums, Mam Esther’s artworks have become even brighter and more modern.
Patterns and colours are typically presented inside a dark black outline and the colour white is often used as the background thereby making the bright colours stand out more.
In the beginning patterns were simpler and more subdued as they were created with a limestone wash and colours made from natural pigments. The browns, blacks and ochres have however given way to brighter colours with the advent and availability of modern house paint, and fingers and feathered brushes have in the most part been replaced with paint brushes.
The colours can represent different ideas or emotions such as announce a marriage in the home, offer prayer, identify the owners or represent a current protest. They can celebrate wealth, health and happiness in the home and the talent and taste of the matriarch of the family amongst other messages that they would like to communicate.
The patterns are typically geometric and abstract. They are first drawn with a black outline and then filled in with colour.
They are typically painted free hand without a ruler which requires a steady hand. They are not pre-sketched and often planned as they go moving from one shape to the next. A major element in terms of the artworks is a sense of balance created by the balancing of shapes and colours.
Clothing and Adornments:
Dr Mahlangu as well as many other Ndebele women still adorn themselves with a variety of ornaments that symbolise their status in society, although this is reducing in modern times. After marriage, dress would become increasingly elaborate and spectacular and Dr Mahlangu travels extensively both locally and internationally in her beautiful traditional Ndebele clothing.
Dr Mahlangu wears copper and brass rings around her arms, legs and neck which symbolise her bond and faithfulness to her husband despite his having past some time ago. The rings, called idzila, were believed to have strong ritual powers and were typically presented by the husband and the more rings presented, the richer the husband was.
Dr Mahlangu wears a heavily beaded marriage blanket which typically signifies important events throughout the woman’s life and a beaded apron. The Umbhalo, or traditional blanket with its vibrant stripes, is special to the Ndebele people and it is worn with pride by married women. The blanket is a beautiful symbol of the passage of time and the events in a woman and mother’s life as she moves through her life. Important events are marked through beadwork attached to her Umbhalo.
The Southern Ndebele are well known for their beadwork which they use to decorate their blankets which they wear, clothing, jewellery and craft items. Some of these were created to be worn as adornment during cultural ceremonies such as weddings. Beaded aprons can symbolise the age and marriage status with mothers providing their unmarried daughters with them once they had undergone female initiation rites.
Up until the 1930’s beadwork was predominantly white with some simple designs in black, blue or red. But they then started working in brighter colours as with the painting of their homes.
Dr Mahlangu has mastered the art having practiced beading from a very young age.