01 Sep Esther Mahlangu: Cultural Custodian
Fresh off her trip to New York, and still in time to honour Heritage Month, we delve into the art and life of a South African treasure, Esther Mahlangu
Words: Tshiamo Seape
Humble beginnings often make for the greatest stories. From a quiet corner in some far off place, greatness is often waiting to be loosed on the world; a receptive audience is all that is required. For Esther Mahlangu, and thankfully us, this scenario has played out beautifully.
Esther Nikwambi Mahlangu was born in Middleburg in Mpumalanga in 1935. Following in the Ndebele traditions of her foremothers, Esther began learning the traditional arts of wall painting and beadwork when she was just ten years old. Owing to a wider range of colours that became available in the 40’s Esther was able to expand her work into the vibrant repertoire that she showcases today.
Her masterful talent came to the world’s attention by chance when she was noticed by researchers from Paris who were travelling the world to document traditional art. So impressed by her they invited her to the exhibition, Magiciens de la Terre (Magicians of the World). At her international debut, she exceeded expectations when she painted a house in front of thousands of spectators. Two years later, in 1991, she went on to create what is considered her greatest work. She painted her geometric patterns on a BMW 525i, becoming the twelfth artist and first woman to take part in the BMW Art Car Project after figures such as Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein.
“Creating a mural in honour of an artist I’ve known all my life, in a city that isn’t welcoming to many, feels unreal. It feels like an aligning moment many of us have when the universe co-creates with us and is in agreement with our path,”
For her bold and continued good work, Esther Mahlangu was recently honoured with a mural in New York, dedicated to her. The tribute was painted in Tribeca by New York-based artist Imani Shanklin Roberts. The mural is part of a tourism partnership between South African Tourism‘s US office, South African Airways (SAA) and bicycle-sharing platform Citi Bike, and also includes branded bikes and bicycle docking platforms.
An artist, educator, and cultural ambassador, Esther’s impact on South Africa’s and its identity cannot be overstated. With boundless beauty and vibrancy, her works have dazzled people the world over. Her most recent accomplishment is the art school she created and funded that aims to preserve Ndebele cultural heritage by teaching mural painting to the next generation; a national treasure creating national treasures. The future is in good hands with such a dedicated and talented custodian.