By Nomali Cele
Mpumalanga-based Ndebele painter Esther Mahlangu, 80, is making headlines again. Last week, it was announced that she will be collaborating with American musician John Legend and the Polish company that manufactures Belvedere Vodka to raise funds for the fight against Aids on the African continent, in their Make the Difference campaign. Mahlangu designed the label for the limited-edition RED bottle and 50 percent of proceeds will be donated to Aids organisations.
She is also currently collaborating with German car manufacturer BMW. Mahlangu has a long-standing connection with BMW; in 1991, she became the first woman – and remains the only African – to create artwork for a BMW, in their Art Car Project. For the 2016 collaboration, Mahlangu has painted on the interior wood trim of the luxury BMW 7 Series. The vehicle will be shown at Frieze Art Fair in London this October and the proceeds donated.
Mahlangu was born just outside Middelburg, Mpumalanga, in November 1935 and has been an artist for most of her life. Her artwork is based largely on traditional Ndebele wall-painting methods. Affectionately known as ‘the first woman to go overseas from her village (the title written on a sign at her art school in Mpumalanga), Mahlangu’s work began to gain international attention in 1989. She was invited to Paris, France, to create some murals for an exhibition at Les Magiciens de la Terre, Centre Georges Pompidou.
Esther Mahlangu owes her career to her heritage. When she was a pre-teen, like many Ndebele girls, she went through the rite of passage where girls are taught to create. The skills she was taught (traditional Ndebele beading and wall painting) laid the foundation for her future as one of Africa’s most prominent artists.
Ndebele murals have been traced back to the 19th century. At the time, Ndebele culture seemed to be under threat of assimilation into Sotho and Boer ways. The Ndzundza and Manala tribes of the Ndebele people stood defiant and made their heritage visible on the exterior of their houses and with what they wore.
The graphics of Ndebele wall art are said to come from the long history of Ndebele beading, which usually depicted colourful geometric shapes. More than shouting the occupants’ proud Ndebele heritage, the murals also signify important events such as marriage and communicate prayers or values.
Adapting and innovating
Throughout her career Mahlangu has innovated on traditional Ndebele methods, however, her chicken feather brush remains. Ndebele wall paintings were originally done with dung and colour pigments but Mahlangu has never looked back since she began using commercial paints, which are far more vibrant. On innovating, Mahlangu told ArtsouthAFRICA, “I also realise that the old must change otherwise it dies and nobody wants to just look at the old.”
The Esther Mahlangu Ndebele Art School preserves tradition by teaching a new generation of girls the valuable skills Mahlangu’s generation learnt from their mothers and grandmothers. So should they move away from their village, they’re able to fly their Ndebele flag high and with pride like the Ndzundza and Manala did in the past. Without Mahlangu and her prominence on the art scene, it’s hard to imagine that designers such as The Ninevites and Hamethop would be creating work as vividly inspired by an African culture, and using a graphic art form inspired by the Ndebele.
Images via the BMW blog