African Modern & Contemporary Art

Reinventing Tradition: Esther Mahlangu

By Sotheby's

S outh African artist Esther Mahlangu is known for her brightly coloured paintings and murals in the Ndebele tradition. Her work has captured the attention of audiences across the globe, and in a career spanning decades Mahlangu has devoted much of her time to community projects in her local village — teaching young women and girls the techniques that were passed down from her mother and grandmother, whilst maintaining a strong presence on the international contemporary art scene. On a recent visit to London to promote South Africa: The Art of a Nation at the British Museum, she sat down with Sotheby's Head of Modern and Contemporary African Art, Hannah O'Leary to discuss her life, work and bringing her cultural heritage to the world. 


Hannah O'Leary: You are very well known for painting on a variety of media, and your first BMW commission in 1991 was an amazing project. You were the first female artist to be involved in the BMW Art Car project. I would love to know how that happened.

Esther Mahlangu: I was working for the Botshabelo Museum, which is a cultural village for displaying Ndebele culture. BMW asked me if I would be interested in painting a car for them and I said,"of course I would." They told me that I had to remember that the car is all white and that it is a brand new car. I told them: "It's a car and my work is to paint, that is why I will paint it for you."  Straight after I painted it, it was sent to Washington D.C. for an exhibition.

HOL: Let's talk about Ndebele culture. How did you take the tradition of Ndebele painting and translate it in to more contemporary artwork?

EM: The Botshabelo Museum was one of the first big projects where I started working on public installation pieces to show off Ndebele culture. When the Botshabelo people established the museum, they went around the area and selected various artists to participate in this project. There were quite a few women during that period still doing paintings, but they selected me because of my unique style which was different from the other styles in the area.


HOL: And is it the women in Ndebele culture who are the artists?

EM: In the olden days, the women were the only ones that were supposed to paint. The men had different tasks to fulfil, they had to look after the cattle in the field, and they had to cut the big grass to thatch the roofs. But this is not the case anymore; there was a big change in the culture over the years. In my training program at home, where I have my school to teach young children how to paint, I teach boys and girls and not only girls anymore.

HOL: I was actually going to ask about younger artists and continuing that tradition. Is there is a big take up of it or is it a dying tradition?

EM: When I returned from my show at the Pompidou, I saw the appreciation that people showed towards Ndebele painting. I thought that I would get the younger people interested in painting. So, I went from village to village and spoke to parents and said: "When your children are finished school in the afternoon, let them come to me and I will teach them to do beadwork, show them the culture and how to paint." Some of the very early students that I taught are now travelling overseas all by themselves and painting. Unfortunately, not many of these students continue painting. I travel with an assistant to show them that we need to take our culture over to people — that cannot come see our work at home.


HOL: How did you learn to paint when you were young?

EM: From my mother and grandmother. So it was a tradition that was passed down from mother to daughter, mother to daughter.

HOL: Is that something that still happens today?

EM: The problem now is that with the whole industrialisation process, where women go and work in the cities, there is no more time to teach children. I was scared and I could see that the culture was dying out and that was one of the reasons why I am trying to get children involved in this education process, to keep the culture alive.

HOL: I am going to take you back to the 1989 Magiciens de la Terre exhibition at the Pompidou in Paris. I would really like to know how you came to be in that show and how it affected your career?

EM: That was my first overseas show. I was working at the Botshabelo Museum and at that stage they were coming to Africa to select artists to participate in the Magiciens de la Terre exhibition. They took pictures of the different decorated houses in the area; I wasn't home when they were taking those photos. They came back a second time, went to my house and asked the children: "Where is the mother of this house?" "She is at the museum," they said.  So they went to the museum and asked: "Who is Esther?" I replied: "I am Esther!" They didn’t say anything else and instead took out a photo of my house and gave it to me. I told them: "This is my house!" "Then you are the person we are looking for," they said, "we want you to come to Paris."


HOL: I would have loved to have seen that show. They constructed a house for you to paint in Paris?

EM: Yes. I didn't know what to expect when I arrived in Paris, it was the first time. The minute I walked into the Pompidou, there was my house, completely built as back home. The only difference was that it didn't have a thatched roof; it had a corrugated iron roof. I do not paint with brushes; I only use chicken feathers so I took my own chicken feathers with me because I knew they wouldn't have the material I use to paint with.


HOL: You have collaborated with many world-leading brands on various commissions – Belvedere Vodka, cult shoe designer Eytys and of course BMW. What do you make of your artistic collaborations?

EM: It's very important for me to work with brands when they approach me. I can't say no to them because tomorrow, I might die and then at least other people will have my work on the objects I paint for them. 

HOL: I am going to steal something from a talk I did with Romuald Hazoume, in which one of the audience members said: "Tell me where the good art schools in Africa are so I can look at graduate art programs." Romuald was irate and he said: "Forget about art schools: that is a western cultural idea. We have our own culture and we are artists — we are born artists!" I think that statement reflects beautifully on your work and your approach to contemporary art. I think these pieces work well in a contemporary setting.

EM: Because I cannot read and write, I made a joke yesterday that I want to go back to school. As a self-taught artist, out of necessity, art becomes your lifestyle. For me, this is much better than just academic qualification in the arts. When I started, I worked with natural pigments which I made myself. My work is powerful even if you put it next to somebody with the academic qualifications.

    ESTHER MAHLANGU, MALE TORSO, 2015. ESTIMATE: £4,000—6,000. 

HOL: You mentioned you have an assistant that helps you paint? Are you still inspired to paint or is it more of a part time job these days?

EM: I wake up every morning, sweep the yard, feed the chickens, and then I start painting. Every day. The day I take a break from painting, I'll do beadwork.  The only time assistants really help me is when I am working on a big project, but otherwise I try to paint everything by myself.

HOL: I wanted to talk about beadwork. Your outfit is spectacular; do you dress like this every day?

EM: No, this is the party dress. This blanket is a very special blanket that I throw over when I go out to occasions; it also has the bead trimmings in the middle and the bottom. When I am at the house I have a working blanket. Otherwise I wear a small working skirt and I also have one for occasions. Neck, arm and leg rings never come off; those are like your wedding band.  They are added when you get married and they can either take them off when you die or bury you with them.

HOL: Do you have any ambitions? Any specific building or object you would like to paint?

EM: I am waiting for that surprise. When someone shows up with whatever that I haven't done, that will be the moment that I know.


South Africa: The Art of a Nation continues at the British Museum until 26 February 2017. 

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