Dr. Esther Mahlangu – South Africa’s treasure
She is known for expressing her love for her heritage and culture through art. This talented woman started to paint and do bead work at the age of 10 and was taught by her mother and grandmother as it was a tradition for woman in the Ndebele culture to paint the exterior of houses. Houses were decorated during winter and it was generally a busy time for Ndebele women. Her art is colourful, symmetrical, large in scale, touching, and forms narratives of the Ndebele culture. Dr. Esther Mahlangu became internationally recognised in 1986 when researchers from Pompidou Centre in Paris where travelling the world to document African art. They discovered Esther and invited her to create murals at a European exhibition called, Magicien de la terre. In 1991, BMW commissioned the artist to create an artistic car. The car was a BMW 525i and was said to be the first “African Art Car” a breath taking master piece. This made her the first women to take part in a BMW project and the twelfth artist to take part in the project after 11 very prominent artists. The car was painted under the theme of the Ndebele artistic patterns and it later made its way to an exhibition at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in the City of Washington DC in 1994.
Her art can also be found at the Contemporary African Art Collection (CAAC) of Jean Pigozzi as well as many other museums around the world. In 1989 she went to Paris, upon arriving there she got an overwhelming surprise when she was presented with an exact replica of her home in Africa and was requested to paint the house as the one she has back home. She painted the house in front of thousands of audience members and lived in Paris for a period of two months.
The people are very good to me, they love me and I enjoyed my stay. I just missed my children and my home. – Dr Esther Mahlangu
She has since painted and exhibited in many locations around the globe such as Mexico, Australia, Switzerland, United States of America, Europe, and her motherland, South Africa.
In 2018, Mahlangu received an honorary doctorate from the University of Johannesburg. She received the order of Ikhamanga award silver class in 2006 for her excellent contribution to the development of indigenous Ndebele art, the Mpumalanga Arts and Culture Award which was awarded to her by the French Ministry of Culture and several other awards.
In 2016, the legendary philanthropist together with John Legend who was the brand ambassador of Belvedere Vodka came together in an effort to fight the HIV and AIDS pandemic in Africa where her art was displayed on the beverage bottles with a red mark.
On the 12th of July 2019, the French embassy in Pretoria celebrated National Day in Pretoria by honouring the remarkable Mahlangu with an award of Officier de L’Ordre Arts et lettres.
Esther’s artwork has inspired and gained a huge fan base across the globe and although she has rubbed shoulders with very influential people and travelled to many countries, the traditional artist still lives among her people in her village in her self-decorated house. In an effort to promote her culture and art, Mahlangu opened an art school in her back yard which she funded herself. Esther has made it public how much she values her culture and native language, many may not know this but she is fluent in Afrikaans but has always emphasised the importance of speaking her own vernacular.