Esther Mahlangu Is Keeping Africa’s Ndebele Painting Alive | Artsy

Dr. Esther Mahlangu
23 Sep 2016

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.

Projects

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.”