Arts Muse

A World Of Voices: Esther Mahlangu

Ben Wilson explores the preservation of cultural tradition through Esther Mahlangu’s vibrant artwork

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Image Credit: Rolls-Royce Phantom-The Mahlangu Phantom, 2020

The more you learn about Dr. Esther Mahlangu’s career, the more you are inclined to reflect not only upon your own privileges but your ability to make excuses in spite of them. Born in the Mpumalanga Province in 1935, Mahlangu is one of the most highly decorated artists to come from South Africa since the turn of the century.

The 85-year-old’s artwork is entirely motivated by the preservation of her culture as an elder of the southern Ndebele people. As a result, she adheres to a strictly traditional lifestyle. She believes: “if people don’t stand up for their culture then it will die out”. Consequently, Mahlangu lives in accordance with the way she was raised. Day-to-day she dresses in a canvas apron, or ijogolo; her wrists, ankles and neck adorned with beaded and copper rings known as isigolwani and idzilla. She walks barefoot, eats a traditional diet and her days begin and end with the rising and setting of the sun. Mahlangu’s commitment to tradition in the effort to keep it alive is beyond admirable.

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However, Mahlangu’s rise to international acclaim is not just a result of this dedication to her heritage, but her ability to showcase it in the world of contemporary art. The idea of Mahlangu’s rurally rooted murals on the international stage, with the ceaselessly progressive backdrop of modern art, might at first seem a total juxtaposition. But nevertheless, for the last 30 years she has perpetuated the artistic style of her people by merging it with the conventions, mediums and practices of the contemporary artistic sphere.

The product of this unlikely marriage closely resembles the painted murals of Mahlangu’s people, which they refer to as ukugwala. Emerging in the 19th century, this decorative form is a custom handed down through generations of Ndebele women. It comprises vibrantly painted geometric patterns on the interior and exterior of their settlements, originally used as a way to convey messages such as the announcement of a special occasion, in the absence of a written language. This came about as a result of their defeat to the ‘Boer’ in 1883, and so it became a means to maintain their practices in a way that seemed harmless to their enemies.

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Natural pigments and clays were mixed with cow dung to produce basic, largely achromatic paints for this wall art. Mahlangu is thought to be the first person in the Ndebele community to use acrylic paints in place of their naturally sourced forebears, blending the style of her cultural heritage with the eye-catching vividity of modern contemporary art. The result is not only striking, but completely unique.

Mahlangu’s artwork ‘discovery’ came about in 1989 with the ‘Magiciens de la Terre’, a highly acclaimed exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in Paris. The aim of this exhibition was to oppose ethnocentric practices within the world of contemporary art, making it the perfect stage on which to propel Mahlangu’s career, and her culture, into the limelight. The magnitude of this event in the context of her career is best put into perspective by the fact that, in flying to Paris to attend her exhibition, Mahlangu became the first Ndebele person to travel overseas. Her status within the community was propelled to that of a celebrity, and this was soon to be the case on a global scale as well.

Since 1989, Esther Mahlangu has collaborated with numerous international fashion brands, car manufacturers and even food and drinks companies, taking her heritage beyond just museums and galleries to the full-scale commercialisation of such brands as Rolls Royce, Belvedere, British Airways; and the list goes on. Perhaps most notably, in 1991 BMW invited Mahlangu to be the first female artist to work on their infamous ‘Art Car Collection’. Eleventh in the series, Mahlangu was tasked with transforming a new BMW 525i into a work of Ndebele heritage.

What’s most astonishing to me about this project, is the stark contrast it posed to the origins of Mahlangu’s artform. Born out of violence and oppression, these paintings offered hope and the opportunity for Ndebele people to express their suffering at the hands of invaders. 108 years on, this same art is being painted on to the status symbol of a multi-billion-pound conglomerate, by an ancestor of those same oppressed people.

Mahlangu recalls being reprimanded by her mother at age 10 for practicing badly on the walls of their home with dung and sand. Now at 85 years of age, she has an honorary doctorate from the University of Johannesburg, has achieved international fame and she might just be the reason her culture is still alive. Her self-run, self-funded art school aims to teach the next generation of South Africans their cultural history. Rather appropriately Mahlangu’s school is named ‘Legacy’ – something which, needless to say, she will certainly be leaving behind her.

*Image Credits: Rolls -Royce Phantom-The Mahlangu Phantom, 2020. Abstract, 2002. *

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