A leading South is on a mission to raise awareness of her culture and encourage young people around the world to embrace art.
By Lindiwe Sibanyoni
Esther Mahlangu, 80, was born in a remote area of northern South Africa and is part of the Ndebele tribe. She was taught to paint aged 10 by her grandmother and mother.
To keep with tradition, she only ever paints her designs with chicken feathers or sticks and uses pigments from her surroundings, such as black from river mud. Speaking before her work is shown in a major exhibition of South African art at the British Museum, Mahlangu said that she was proud to help promote her culture and her tribe.
She said: “Most people have never experienced Ndebele culture. My life’s work is showing people my culture. [It is] my small gesture of protecting Ndebele from dying out.” The artist said she hoped her work would inspire the next generation of artists. “I want to give to children so they have the passion about art that I have and the process continues.”
“I always watched my mother and grandmother when they were decorating the house,” says Mahlangu of her start in painting. “The original patterns that were painted on the houses in the past were part of a ritual of Ndebele people to announce events like a birth, death, wedding, or when a boy goes off to the initiation school. I started painting on canvas and board as I realized not everybody will be able to see the Ndebele painting in Mpumalanga where I live, and I felt I need to take it to them to see. This is how my work started to be exhibited in museums and galleries around the world.”
While Mahlangu’s artistic foundation is in the centuries-long tradition of Ndebele craft, she has developed a visual lexicon and color palette that is specific to her. “In the old days, the decoration on the houses was always done with natural pigment and cow dung as that was the only material available,” she remembers. “We were very limited with colors and used monochromatic yellow, white, ochre, black, and red clay. Then acrylic paint in lots of colors was introduced, which was more durable in the rainy season and it was adopted by the younger generation of painters like myself.” For her breakout exhibition, in the group show “Magicians of the Earth,” at the Centre Pompidou in 1989, Mahlangu used acrylic paint.
Her first car followed a lineage that includes Andy Warhol, Alexander Calder, Frank Stella, Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Rauschenberg, and many other well-known male artists of the Western canon. “We opened our plant in Rosslyn, South Africa, in 1986 and have had a big presence there ever since,” explains Girst of the decision to work with Mahlangu. “And Nelson Mandela was freed from prison [in 1990]. So 1991 was the year that the commitment was made to do something for the art scene there.
That was embodied in the commission of Esther Mahlangu. I’m proud of that heritage as well as her becoming the first woman artist to tackle the project.”
“I would think that no art is being created in a vacuum,” says Girst. “It’s somewhat problematic when looking at South African art and Western art—with mostly Western art taking and African art giving. The way that African art was appropriated is more of a taker’s attitude. I want to see the art history written that pays as much tribute to the originality of this South African heritage that we also see in Mahlangu’s art as to Keith Haring.”
Mahlangu herself points out the influence of African art on Western culture. “There has always been a fascination, demand, and admiration for art from Africa,” she says, “and the Ndebele style is one of the most significant styles of painting that still resembles original shapes and forms. It is colorful and abstract and lends itself to incorporation into modern design.”
But she also sees the importance of inserting Ndebele painting into the Western art canon in order to preserve its history. “Sadly there are very few traditional Ndebele painters left, as girls no longer stay home,” she says. “Everybody works in big cities and all the houses are now brick houses and not the traditional mud houses of the past. A long time ago, if you drove through the areas where Ndebele people settled, you would see lots of decorated houses. Now there are fewer and fewer. I am very scared that one day the only Ndebele mural or painting that you will see will be a picture in a book or in a museum.” Mahlangu cannot stop the changes taking place in her culture, but she can be part of its amplification.