The work of South African artist Esther Mahlangu is as breathtaking as it gets: contrasting yet beautiful colors, ziggurats, diamonds and spiers swirl around the building. A zigzag pattern of bright blue, yellow and pink triangles scrolls past a rural residence in the Mpumalanga region of northern South Africa. Mahlangu’s graphic art has enlivened giant airplanes, BMW automobiles and large-scale public installations, and it is no longer confined to rural South Africa.
To commemorate the end of apartheid, BMW commissioned South African artist Esther Mahlangu to create an artwork for its Art Car initiative in 1991. Her work draws inspiration from traditional Ndebele house painting styles in Africa from the South, with its brilliantly colored geometric patterns. The Ndebele were forced to live in ethnically demarcated rural reserves during apartheid; their creations are expressions of cultural identity, as well as a form of protest against racial isolation and marginalization.
The same startling flair is evident in her dress, as Mahlangu wears traditional necklaces, blankets, beads and fabrics, at home in rural South Africa while making a statement in sophisticated art galleries.
Most striking is the sparkle in her eyes when she talks about her mission to keep the culture of the Ndebele people of South Africa alive.
“My work is a celebration of my culture, the Ndebele culture, and it makes me proud to see it tour the world. People can see it in Africa, Europe, America, and they can say it’s beautiful.
It’s Ndebele,” Mahlangu said recently, speaking in the Ndebele language through an interpreter as she sat by an evening fire at her property.
“We have to teach our young people where they come from, what culture they come from. They should be proud of their culture and pass it on to their children and grandchildren. That’s what we have to do.”
The Ndebele people of South Africa, one of many ethnic groups of the country’s 60 million people, live largely in northeastern South Africa and are known for their distinctive decorations and clothing .
Neighboring Zimbabwe has a distinct Ndebele population which migrated north a few hundred years ago.
Mahlangu has become known in South Africa as one of the most talented and accomplished Ndebele artists. Her designs attracted international attention and in 1991 she was commissioned by BMW to decorate a car to form part of its collection of vehicles painted by artists such as Andy Warhol, David Hockney and Frank Stella.
His work was increasingly exhibited internationally and in 1997 British Airways asked him to create a design for one of its Boeing 747s.
Mahlangu received an honorary doctorate from the University of Johannesburg in 2018.
Mahlangu’s international success allowed him to build a spacious complex consisting of several buildings, including a gallery and a guest house, all decorated with his designs.
Although she is generally cared for by her family, an intruder broke into her home earlier this year, tried to strangle her and stole some belongings. A suspect has been arrested and Mahlangu is still recovering from the trauma, family members said.
Now frail in her mid-80s, Mahlangu nonetheless responded enthusiastically to a troupe of athletic Ndebele dancers who recently visited her and she joined them for a brief lively medley.
Although Mahlangu no longer paints, she defends the Ndebele culture from her home.
“What is remarkable in mam’ Esther’s work are undoubtedly the colors and the way in which she is able to bring the colors to life in a symmetrical way and not give the impression… of an aggression on the eyes,” Ruzy Rusike, curator at the Melrose Gallery in Johannesburg, who represents Mahlangu.
“I think it goes back to his own understanding of what colors mean spiritually when they see (them), but also what contemporary colors mean now,” Rusike said.
“In the sense that now we have very bright reds, bright oranges, whereas before she worked more with a how do I explain it? Like more of a natural pigment.”
Rusike said that Mahlangu has made her mark on the global art scene because “she is able, over time, to constantly change and reinvent herself”.