When South African artist Esther Mahlangu started painting at the age of 10, she never thought she would end up being one of her country’s cultural ambassadors, taking her unique, tradition-driven art and entrepreneurship around the globe. Today, 82-year-old Dr. Esther Mahlangu has exhibited her work in some of the world’s most important museums, was the first woman to create a BMW art car, received an honorary doctorate, and has also established an informal art school in the backyard of her home among other prestigious highlights.
Esther Mahlangu’s artistic journey began by following the Ndebele tradition of house painting. Dating back to the 19th century, this practice began when the Ndebele people of South Africa went to war with the Boer in the autumn of 1883. Their defeat brought a harsh life that the suffering tribe expressed through symbols. Used for communication, these paintings were viewed as harmless by their enemy, allowing them to continue with their practice. Done by the women of the community, the murals painted on the façades of the houses contained a secret code that only the Ndebele understood.
“I was taught to paint by my grandmother and my mother,” remembers Esther Mahlangu. “I would continue to paint on the house when they left for a break. When they came back they would say: what have you done child? Never do that again! After that I started drawing on the back of the house, and slowly my drawings got better and better until they finally asked me to come back to the front of the house. Then I knew I was good at painting.”
The messages carried by the paintings include personal prayers, self-identification, values, emotion and marriage. Today, we see patterns and symbols in vivid colours, outlined by a bold black that Esther Mahlangu has transformed from a craft into an art. “I don’t want my culture to die out, I want my culture to live on and my children to know how to do this too so they can teach their children one day,’ comments Esther Mahlangu on her work. “This is the purpose of our art: passing on our tradition from generation to generation so they can see where Ndebele comes from.”
In 1991 – the same year Nelson Mandela was released after 27 years of imprisonment – she was commissioned by BMW to create an art car, following those of Andy Warhol, David Hockney and Frank Stella among others. This piece, a BMW 525i, was the first ‘African art car’ and featured the typical motifs of the Ndebele tribe that Esther Mahlangu transferred from mural to canvas. Within one week she had transformed the car into a masterpiece.
Happy with the results, BMW commissioned Esther again in 2016 to refine a BMW 7 series. The project included the interiors of the car which saw its panels painted in Ndebele art. ‘I am very happy to work with BMW again,’ said the artist on her continuous ventures with the German car manufacturing company. “First I painted the outside of a BMW, and today I get to paint the inside!”
The relationship has grown to that extent that now, BMW South Africa is committed to upgrade her art studio, where she established an art school in the backyard of her home. Located in Mabhoko in the Kwamhlanga district in the Mpumalanga province, she provides funding for the school herself, and when not traveling, she mentors young artists in the traditional style of Ndebele art. Inside, students are taught how to mix pigments and paint straight lines using only their fingers or chicken feathers.
“Painting is in my blood, it happens naturally. My wish is to keep traveling the world so that people can get excited about my painting.”