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
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
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.”