“I would continue to paint on the house when they left for a break, when they came back they would say: what have you done child? Never do that again! After that I started drawing on the back of the house, and slowly my drawings got better and better until they finally asked me to come back to the front of the house. Then I knew I was good at painting."
Dr Esther Mahlangu was born in 1935 in Middelburg in Mpumalanga. She was taught the art of Ndebele design and house painting from her mother and grandmother as is tradition in Ndebele culture.
She was a disruptor and visionary from an early age, incurring the wrath of her elders by painting over their wall paintings. She was told to practice on the back of houses but her innate skill was soon clear to see and Dr Mahlangu is a source of great pride to the Ndebele nation as their most globally acclaimed artist and ambassador.
Dr Mahlangu was the first person to reimagine Ndebele design on more contemporary mediums and this has led to her painting anything from planes, cars, motorbikes and bicycles to pots, canvas, walls, mannequins and even war helmets.
Although she had already built a strong reputation in South Africa, her international break through was in 1989 when she was invited to participate in ‘Les Magiciens de la Terre, an exhibition at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, France. For this exhibition she painted a model of her house in Mpumalanga which was viewed by massive audiences.
In 1991 she became the first lady and first African to be invited to participate in the BMW Art Car Collection amongst other notables of the likes of Andy Warhol, David Hockney, Roy Lichtenstein and Frank Stella.
Whilst firmly grounded in and immensely proud of her Ndebele culture and choosing to live in her homestead in rural Mpumalanga and wear traditional Ndebele dress, Dr Mahlangu is a woman of the world. She has and continues to spend extensive time in many of the world’s largest and most modern cities collaborating with leading museums, curators, art fairs, celebrities and global brands.
Dr Mahlangu has collaborated on many high profile projects including John Legend and Belvedere Vodka to raise money for the fight against HIV in Africa, BMW, Rolls-Royce, Fiat, BMW, British Airways, South African Airways, Eytys Sneakers for Paris Fashion Week and Freshpak Rooibos amongst numerous others.
During her illustrious career, spanning 3 decades, she has developed an almost pop icon status of her own. Her works grace the collections of the likes of Swizz Beatz and Alicia Keys for the Dean Collection, Usher, John Legend, Trevor Noah, Oprah Winfrey, Will Smith and Black Coffee amongst numerous other pop stars who recognize her unflinching dedication to her artform and practice.
Many leading museums, private collectors and corporates have also acquired her works including the Smithsonian Institute, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, National Museum of Woman in the Arts, Centre Georges Pompidou, Museum Bochum, Musee des Beaux Arts, Iziko South African National Gallery, Pretoria Art Museum, Jean Pigozzi, the Sovereign Art Foundation and the World Bank amongst numerous others who understand her invaluable contribution to contemporary art.
Dr Mahlangu richly deserves her many accolades and awards which date as far back as 1988. These include the receipt of two honorary doctorates in 2018 and an appointment as ‘Office of Arts and Letters’ the highest recognition for contribution to the arts from France and an award from the United Nations in 2019. In 2007 she received ‘The Order of Ikhamanga’ from the President of South Africa.
Throughout her life she has steadfastly advocated for the promotion and preservation of Ndebele culture. This has led to her commitment to educating and passing her skills to the younger generation via her self-funded art school at her homestead.
Dr Mahlangu appointed The Melrose Gallery as her global gallery representative. www.themelrosegallery.co.za