Early Life and Career

Dr. Esther Mahlangu is South African artist who was born November 11, 1935 in the Mpumalanga province. From a young age, she learned from her mother and grandmother how to paint and do beadwork in the traditional Ndebele style (Mndawe). This tradition was passed on to each generation “as part of their initiation rites,” and before 1940, they “used mostly natural pigments produced from charcoal, clay and red earth, which the women went to look for several kilometers away” (Esther Mahlangu). Her work has brought the traditional wall paintings over onto canvas and various other objects, which had helped her artwork reach people worldwide (Freshpak & Esther Mahlangu). For eleven years, she worked at a museum for Ndebele culture called Botshabelo Historical Village (Esther Mahlangu). She states that her discovery was in 1986 by French researchers, and they invited her to France, and in 1989 she painted a house there “in front of thousands of spectators” (Mndawe). Later she went back to South Africa to paint murals and has exhibited all around the world (Esther Mahlangu).

https://www.joburgstyle.co.za/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/Image-2-8.jpgImage courtesy of Joburg Style

Work and Techniques

A fascinating aspect of her work is that she does not plan out her piece before creating it with an initial sketch but uses her imagination to reflect Ndebele beadwork (South Africa: Dr Esther Mahlangu Unveils the ‘Mahlangu’ Rolls-Royce Phantom At the Melrose Gallery). She now uses acrylic paints and applies them using natural materials such as feathers and twigs (Esther Mahlangu). One can observe her incredible hand-eye coordination through each of her pieces, and her artistic abilities shine through her impeccable line work, use of shapes, and radiant colors.

Image courtesy of BMW Group

Image courtesy of Joburg Style

(VIDEO)

This video talks about how she transitioned over into acrylic paints and how important her culture is to her

“Acrylic paints have allowed me to use many more colors than I could have with natural pigments.”

Quote by Dr. Esther Mahlangu from Forbes (Mun-Delsalle)

Collaborations

Dr. Esther Mahlangu has gained international success. There have been various companies such as British Airways, BMW, Rolls-Royce, Freshpak Rooibos, and Eytys sneakers that have had the opportunity to collaborate with her (Freshpak & Esther Mahlangu and Kabwe). She has been able to translate her artistic vision onto so many objects, and as you can see, her distinct style/creativity transitions over so well. Once you get to know her work, you can recognize it in her collaborations and appreciate the care and innovation it took to create each masterpiece. Her work brings out a sense of joy in the observer, and with her many collaborations, many people have been able to learn about her culture and witness her fantastic artistry.

“What many find interesting about my artwork is that although they are based on traditional Ndebele designs, they are still very modern and current. They can fit into a home or office anywhere in the world and don’t appear dated.”

Quote by Dr. Esther Mahlangu from Forbes (Mun-Delsalle)

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Images courtesy of Between 10 and 5

Some more collaborations include Belvedere vodka, Fiat, and Nelson Mandela (Mun-Delsalle). She has also had exhibitions in Japan, America, and Europe and has received many awards, including the “Order of Ikhamanga in Silver by the South African presidency” (Mndawe).

“To paint is in my heart and in my blood.”

Quote by Dr. Esther Mahlangu from a Forbes article (Mun-Delsalle)

Impact

Dr. Esther Mahlangu has been able to expand her artistic impact by founding an art school. It is located in her home’s backyard, and she funds the school herself (Mndawe). Girls and boys can come after school to learn her painting and beadwork (Sotheby’s). She has received accolades from France and the United States of America (Esther Mahlangu (1935 – )). Along with all her artistic achievements, she holds two honorary doctorates from the University of Johannesburg and the Durban University of Technology (Freshpak 80s Limited Edition Esther Mahlangu Tin). 

“I teach mostly young people and elders how to mix pigments and pain straight lines, free-handed and without sketches, using their fingers or chicken feathers. We paint walls, portraits, canvases, ornaments and all types of objects. We also do crafts. My students want to be like me one day and have the opportunity to paint big brand cars, wine bottles, shoes and clothing labels etc.”

Quote by Ester Mahlangu in a interview with She Leads Africa written by Khethiwe Mndawe.

Photo courtesy of Real Life Magazine

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I chose to write about Dr. Esther Mahlangu because her artwork immediately draws you in. Even without knowing anything about her story, you can appreciate the color and design in each of her pieces. I enjoy art so much because it transcends so many barriers. It is a universal language that anyone can take part in. For example, you do not need to speak someone’s language to experience their art necessarily. Humans have been creating for so long, and we continue to add to that history when we make art. Furthermore, art can speak to a part of you that you did not know there, and it can invoke an array of emotions. Sometimes, art gets overlooked in society, but we should take more time to appreciate the amount of effort, dedication, and imagination it takes artists like Dr. Esther Mahlangu to create. I love her work because I can see through it that she paints with purpose and an immense passion for her culture.

Here are some more videos that have Dr. Esther Mahlangu talking about her culture and artwork:

Featured Image courtesy of Joburg Style

Work Cited

Esther Mahlangu.” South African History Online, 27 Feb. 2015.

Esther Mahlangu.” Tel Aviv Museum of Art.

Esther Mahlangu (1935 – ).” The Presidency Republic of South Africa.

Freshpak 80s Limited Edition Esther Mahlangu Tin.” Joburgstyle Online, 27 Aug. 2020.

Freshpak & Esther Mahlangu.” Real Life Magazine, 6 Nov. 2018.

Kabwe, Suwi. “6 Of Our Favourite Esther Mahlangu Collaborations.” Between 10 and 5, 25 Mar. 2020.

Mndawe, Khethiwe. “Esther Mahlangu: I Want to Transfer This Skill to the Generations after Me.” She Leads Africa, 30 Nov. 2016.

Mun-Delsalle, Y-Jean. “Esther Mahlangu, One Of South Africa’s Most Famous Artists, Perpetuates Traditional Ndebele Painting.” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 7 June 2019.

Sotheby’s. “Reinventing Tradition: Esther Mahlangu.” Sothebys.com, Sotheby’s, 20 July 2018.

South Africa: Dr Esther Mahlangu Unveils the ‘Mahlangu’ Rolls-Royce Phantom At the Melrose Gallery.” AllAfrica, 13 Feb. 2020.

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