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Esther Mahlangu (1935 - )

The Order of Ikhamanga in

Esther Mahlangu (1935 - ) Awarded for:
Excellent contribution to the development of the indigenous Ndebele arts.

Profile of Esther Mahlangu

Esther Mahlangu was born in 1935 on a farm near Middelburg in Mpumalanga. In the tradition of the Ndebele, Mahlangu was taught how to paint by her grandmother and mother at the age of 10.

Mahlangu's artistic flair emerged when, at puberty, she underwent the traditional Ndebele practice in which young women are cloistered from society for a few months and taught the traditional craft of beadwork. These early lessons would later serve as training for her artistic career.

The traditional Ndebele technique of wall painting entailed first finishing a house in cow dung, before decorating the walls with designs rendered in coloured clay. When she was growing up in the 1940s, the use of modern paints was introduced and the colourful geometrical shapes that have come to define Ndebele art also evolved at this time. It was these influences which would serve to inspire her work later in her career.

As a teenager, Mahlangu became an expert in executing the traditional Ndebele art of wall painting, traditionally only done by women and on special occasions. Through her work, she became well known and began to receive commissions from many places.

Though grounded in tradition, in the course of her work Mahlangu began to evolve, elaborate and innovate on the traditional designs and techniques. She engaged with the economics of the art industry, both to develop and reinforce her roots. She began to transpose these on canvas and other material to appeal to a wider audience. In this process she broke new ground, popularised her work and in turn, was challenged by artistic counter influences.

In the course of her career, Mahlangu's work has undergone many transitions, even experimenting with the use of fluorescent vinyl paints. But as art critic Amelia Pleasant observed at Mahlangu's first solo exhibition in South Africa in 2003, 'she has returned to the natural, muted colours of clays and cow dung that give her work texture, perhaps reminiscent of her early childhood'.

In her work, Mahlangu represents ordinary, every-day objects in the abstract, drawing freehand without prior measurement or sketches, and using feathers and bundled twigs as brushes as in the old way. Pleasant wrote: 'Each time a new glance is given to Mahlangu's mural paintings, the eye dances, swirls, and skips, finding movement in distinctly two-dimensional works'.

Today Mahlangu's work is represented in private, corporate and public galleries around the world. Her village home in Mpumalanga is inundated with visitors from around the world, keen to explore her complex approach to wall decoration.

Beside her own country, Mahlangu has exhibited in Australia, America, Japan and in many European countries. Some of her most famous murals have been exhibited at the New Identities Exhibition in the Bocum Museum in Germany, at the Virgin Atlantic's music store in Times Square, the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington DC and at the Civic Theatre in Johannesburg.

In 1999, following major international artists, including the likes of Andy Warhol and David Hockney, Mahlangu became the first woman artist to be commissioned to decorate a BMW car in traditional Ndebele design. Mahlangu was also commissioned to paint the tail of a British Airways Boeing.

Esther Mahlangu has spent a life dedicated to the art of painting and the evolution of traditional painting. She has promoted her people's culture with integrity and sensitivity, and has successfully carved out a career in art.

At 70, Mahlangu still experiences great joy when painting. She continues to present her work in group and solo exhibitions around the world. Mahlangu is involved in sustainable development in her community and trains young women in this art of their forebears. She enjoys the company of her 11 grandchildren and seven great grandchildren.

Mahlangu is the recipient of the Mpumalanga Arts and Culture Award; an award from the French Ministry of Culture; the Radio Ndebele Award (1988 and 2001); the Nassau County Commendation, and the Incorporated Village of Hempstead Citation (the latter two from the United States of America).

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