Despite having no formal education, iconic Ndebele artist Esther Mahlangu has gained international fame, thanks to the passion she has for her heritage.
Dr Esther Mahlangu (82) is the perfect embodiment of what can be achieved by embracing your heritage.
Mahlangu is known all over the world as the South African artist from the Ndebele nation who uses her contemporary painting style to represent amaNdebele.
Her work has been featured by various local and international brands such as BMW, Honda, British Airways, Albany and Tastic rice, to mention a few. It has also been showcased in many art exhibitions across the globe.
Vuk’uzenzele visited her home near Mthambothini in Mpumalanga to speak to her about the importance of embracing heritage and culture.
“My heritage is part of who I am. It is important for everyone to love who they are and respect their culture. Respecting your culture can take you places and also put food on your table,” she said.
Youth and heritage
Mahlangu said young people should take it from her that sticking to their roots and embracing their traditions and culture could be their ticket to the world.
She has proudly embraced her Ndebele culture throughout her life, in how she dresses, her hairstyle and, most importantly, how she has decorated the interior and exterior of her home with iconic Ndebele shapes and colours.
The geometric patterns painted on houses announce events like a birth, death, wedding, or when a boy goes off to the initiation school. “Even when a woman gets married, she is expected to paint her own house by herself to show her in-laws that she has been brought up well,” Mahlangu added.
Mahlangu was taught to paint by her mother and grandmother and first tackled her own patch of wall when she was 10 years old. She loved painting but had no idea that one day she would make a living out of it and even travel the world.
“I grew up seeing my mother and grandmother do the paintings at home,” she said. One day, when they took a break, little Esther snuck in and did a bit of painting of her own. She was caught and scolded but the allure was too great and she continued to sneakily add her own daubs of colour. Eventually, her grandmother allowed her to claim a spot behind the house as her own.
“They later realised that I had a passion for it and I had improved, so they finally allowed me to paint the front of the house where everyone could see. They were impressed with what I could do,” she recalled.
Back then, Mahlangu said they mixed cow dung with white soil, red soil or black soil in order to get the colours they wanted. Chicken feathers were used as brushes.
“When I got married, I was already mastering the art of painting, and my in-laws were really impressed. They could see that I was raised well,” she said.
Mahlanguís first international trip
Years later – in the late 1980s, her colourful Middelburg home drew the attention of French tourists who were so blown away by her work that they commissioned her to do work in France.
“They took a picture of my house. It was a long time ago. Nelson Mandela was still in prison then. The tourists went to look for me immediately and when they found me, they told me that they wanted me to go to France with them to do the painting in their country,” she recalled.
“I had to get permission from my children and started making arrangements to get a visa. About five months later, my documents were ready and they came to fetch me. It was my first flight and so I arranged to travel with one of my children. When I arrived in Paris, I was shocked to see that they had built a house exactly like mine and they just wanted me to decorate it like I had done my own in South Africa,” she shared.
She has since been in demand and toured many countries across the globe to showcase her talent and the rich Ndebele heritage. Her work has taken her to Japan, Portugal, Italy, Spain, the United States of America, Germany, Switzerland, Australia, Brazil and England.
She has collected a number of accolades over the years, internationally and locally, including an honorary doctorate and an Order of Ikhamanga along with being the first woman in the world to create artwork on the BMW 5251.
“All these awards and recognition for my work mean a lot to me as an individual and a Ndebele woman. I am really happy and it encourages me to continue inspiring others to love their culture,” she said.
“All my life, I have maintained the same hairstyle and worn my traditional regalia. This is who I am and I am proud of it. I wish young people could go back to their roots and embrace who they are so that the world can recognise them for who they are,” she said.
Mahlangu had three children but they have all passed on. However, she has passed on her knowledge to her grandchildren and has also opened the Ndebele Art School for children in her area.
“Some of my students have already travelled overseas to showcase their talents,” she said.
While Mahlangu’s work has evolved over the years, and she paints on various mediums, including canvas and ceramic, she continues to paint freehand without prior measurement or sketches and to use feathers and bundles of twigs as brushes.