'I have been making art all my life because it is in my heart and in my blood. When I paint I am happy. I strived to show people from all over the world my work and to tell them my story as an artist, an Ndebele woman artist, who against all odds travelled the world … I know that long after I am gone, people will still go and see my paintings and they will remember there was an artist called Esther Mahlangu, and she came from South Africa.'
When arriving at Esther Mahlangu’s hometown of Weltevrede, South Africa, visitors are immediately alerted to the fact that they have reached the home of The Art Woman. ‘Esther is here, Esther est ici, The first woman who visited overseas’ reads the brilliantly coloured sign. Debuting on the international stage at the 1989 Magiciens de la terre exhibition at the Centre Pompidou, Esther Mahlangu has dedicated her life and practice to promoting Ndebele arts and culture both overseas and at home in South Africa.
Born in 1935, Esther was taught to paint by her mother and grandmother. As a child, the artist honed her skills by helping her female relatives paint decorative traditional Ndebele patterns on the walls of their homes. Confined to practicing on the back walls until she improved her technique, Esther soon developed her own distinct style. Using fine chicken feathers as her tool of choice, the artist continues to reinvent Ndebele tradition by creating vibrantly coloured, large-scale geometric paintings that echo the traditional patterns used in Ndebele beadwork. Although still very much rooted in Ndebele culture, Mahlangu’s works fit within a greater contemporary setting. The present lot perfectly exemplifies Mahlangu’s work as the meeting point of old and new, of traditional and contemporary.
At 86 years old, Mahlangu has extensively widened the types of surfaces and objects on which she works, often partnering with some of the world’s most renowned commercial companies. The most notable of these relationships has been Mahlangu’s partnership with BMW’s Art Car Series, an initiative whose past participants include artists such as Andy Warhol and Jeff Koons. In 1991, to mark the end of apartheid, she became the first woman and first African invited to contribute to this Art Car Collection. 25 years later the same 525i Sedan was featured as a highlight of the 2016 British Museum exhibition, South Africa: The Art of a Nation, and BMW invited the artist to design a second car, which was exhibited at Frieze London alongside the present lot.