Esther Mahlangu Is Keeping Africa’s Ndebele Painting Alive
Esther Mahlangu’s presence is striking, like her art. The 80-year-old South African artist wears the traditional dress of her Ndebele heritage: thick, beaded necklaces; gold bangles, chokers, and ankle bracelets; patterned head adornments stitched together from hundreds of beads; and voluminous textiles in vibrant colors wrapped around her body. She could step right into one of her vivid murals or wall-size paintings, which similarly stop you in your tracks.
Mahlangu’s work speaks a visual language that spans disciplines, from pop art to graphic design. She imagines her compositions without the help of preliminary drawings, and, with superhuman precision and using a delicate chicken feather as her brush, she applies thick black lines in patterns that echo Ndebele beadwork but in paint, then adds swathes of rich color.
“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.
“The Ndebele started using the colors and patterns that Mahlangu plays with now only around the 1940s, around the time when Esther was born,” says Thomas Girst, an art historian, author, and Head of Cultural Engagement at BMW. The company recently commissioned the artist to paint the interior panels of a BMW Individual 7 Series, 25 years after they asked her to paint their 1991 BMW Art Car. That early commission was the first of the series’ collaborations with women. “She was trying to blend tradition with modernity, so while there is a family trajectory there, it was also her and her generation who took this one step further, making this now-recognized Ndebele contribution to contemporary art,” added Girst.
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.”
That her aesthetic appealed to a company like BMW should come as no surprise. Looking at the Art Car series leading up to her appointment, one can see the clear influence of African art on Western artists. “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.
“When looking at a Ndebele mural, people get a smile of amazement on their faces,” she says. “And if they watch me paint, they can’t believe that I don’t use a ruler to paint the lines, and that my hand is so steady, even at my age. If people see the bright colors, they are happy. And it makes me happy as well, as I love to paint; it is in my heart and in my blood.”
Mahlangu’s 1991 BMW Art Car will be featured in “South Africa: the art of a nation” at the British Museum, London, Oct. 27, 2016–Feb. 26, 2017.
The unique 2016 BMW Individual 7 Series painted by Esther Mahlangu is currently up for auction through Oct. 10, 2016, with profit from the sale going to The Art Room. Bid here.