Mahlangu leads by ex­am­ple

The artist is a na­tional trea­sure who wants oth­ers to do what she has done for Nde­bele art

Mail & Guardian - - Art - Zaza Hlalethwa

Shal­low cal­abashes filled with clay and cow dung sit on the stoep of a hut on a farm just out­side Mid­del­burg in the late 1940s. A pre­teen Es­ther Mahlangu al­ter­nates be­tween dip­ping chicken feath­ers and thick plant roots into the cal­abashes. With nar­rowed eyes, she ap­plies the thick pastes on the hut’s walls with gen­tle, ea­ger strokes. Mahlangu is be­gin­ning to learn the Nde­be­les’ paint­ing tech­niques and is re­stricted to the back wall of her home.

This rit­ual of a cross-legged Mahlangu paint­ing and re­paint­ing the same pat­terns, on a part of the hut hid­den from visi­tors’ views, con­tin­ued. With no maths set, rulers or sten­cil, she prac­tised the sym­met­ri­cal cir­cles, tri­an­gles and straight lines of the geo­met­ric pat­terns that char­ac­terise Nde­bele art­work until the ma­tri­archs, who were teach­ing her, ap­proved of her work and al­lowed her to paint on the front walls of the house.

The in­her­ited pride of the cul­tural prac­tice and process planted a seed that groomed the young Nde­bele girl to be­come the Dr Es­ther Mahlangu we know to­day.

Her lat­est work is a mu­ral at the Nirox Sculp­ture Park in the Cra­dle of Hu­mankind, part of the 2018 win­ter sculp­ture exhibition, Not a Sin­gle Story, which opened last week­end and will be on show until July 29.

Its ti­tle was in­spired by au­thor Chi­ma­manda Ngozi Adichie’s TED talk, in which she warned against lim­it­ing peo­ple’s ex­pe­ri­ences to a sin­gle perspective. To bring this mes­sage across, the exhibition pre­dom­i­nantly fea­tures the works of women artists from South Africa and around the world, in­clud­ing Nandipha Mn­tambo, Jane Alexan­der, Nelisiwe Xaba, Yoko Ono, Mary Sibande, Lena Cron­qvist, Beth Arm­strong, Mwangi Hut­ter, Ayana V Jack­son, Frances Good­man, Caro­line Mårtens­son, Claudette Schreud­ers and Mahlangu. An arts ed­u­ca­tion pro­gramme will run along­side the exhibition.

“Learn­ing to paint was the equiv­a­lent of go­ing to school in those days. You see, you got to go to school and even univer­sity. That didn’t ex­ist for us. So we painted. It was how we show­cased our in­tel­li­gence,” says the stal­wart by phone. She is in Por­tu­gal work­ing on a new mu­ral com­mis­sion.

“When you painted on the wall of your home­stead, you were show­ing your com­mu­nity what you know and who you are. If you painted badly, it was a re­flec­tion of the home you came from and your ded­i­ca­tion to the craft. If you painted well, you were the equiv­a­lent of a learned girl in to­day’s con­text. It earned you the re­spect of your peers,” ex­plains Mahlangu.

By 1986, when French cu­ra­tors from the Cen­tre Pom­pi­dou were in­tro­duced to Mahlangu, the artist had been hon­ing her craft ev­ery day for just over 40 years — first in her parental home and then in her mar­i­tal house­hold. When there was an ad­di­tion to the fam­ily, a loss or any other sig­nif­i­cant event, Mahlangu painted be­cause, be­fore it be­came her liv­ing, it was a lan­guage.

She laughs at the mem­ory of how the French “dis­cov­ered” her. “Oh no! Lo­cal cu­ra­tors saw the art­work at my home­stead and recog­nised how beau­ti­ful it was. They in­sisted that I start work­ing at their mu­seum [Bot­sha­belo Mu­seum]. Then a white man from France by the name of Andrew, I don’t re­call his sur­name, ap­proached me to go over­seas. But that’s not when I be­came an artist.”

The mem­ory Mahlangu re­calls refers to her first in­ter­na­tional group exhibition, Les Magi­ciens de la Terre, The Ma­gi­cians of the Earth. At this exhibition in Paris, dur­ing a State of Emer­gency in South Africa and at a time when the coun­try was iso­lated from the world, the 50-yearold Mahlangu painted a replica of her house nge­siNde­bele while the pub­lic watched.

What seemed like a sim­ple act on her part be­came the Western world’s in­tro­duc­tion to the Nde­bele her­itage and its reliance on artis­tic ex­pres­sion.

Be­fore she be­came the recog­nised fig­ure she is to­day, the Nde­bele art­work she grew up do­ing was lim­ited to the nat­u­ral colours of brown, black, white and ochre. By pi­o­neer­ing the use of pri­mary colours and be­ing the first to place Nde­bele art­work on can­vas, Mahlangu fur­thered the art form’s reach.

Although the re­sponse to her work pleased her, Mahlangu re­turned home wary of what this might mean for her her­itage. But, by then, for­mal ed­u­ca­tion struc­tures had been put in place, so young girls were no longer be­ing taught how to paint by their ma­tri­archs.

“My ob­jec­tive be­came pass­ing on my art­work to the next gen­er­a­tion so that the authen­tic­ity of Nde­bele art does not fade away. So I gath­ered the young peo­ple who lived nearby and be­gan pass­ing the skill on to even chil­dren who were not my own. I taught my stu­dents by giv­ing them a sam­ple of my work and or­der­ing them to copy what I had painted on pieces of ceil­ing board.

“Af­ter at­tempt­ing to repli­cate my work, I cri­tiqued their at­tempts, sent them back to redo it and re­peated this process until they per­fected my pieces. By do­ing this, they be­gan to grasp what­ever I pre­sented to them. Now they have it for­ever.”

By so do­ing Mahlangu ce­mented her lo­cal rel­e­vance as a holder of in­dige­nous knowl­edge.

Af­ter pi­o­neer­ing the move from walls to can­vas as a way to teach the skill, she be­gan to paint on can­vas to sell the por­ta­ble pieces to tourists, com­mer­cial­is­ing in­dige­nous ex­pres­sion on her own terms.

Once the door to the com­mer­cial world opened, Mahlangu’s com­mis­sioned work was no longer iso­lated to the white square. In­stead, collaborations have in­cluded the likes of BMW, Fiat and Belvedere Vodka.

What was once solely a vis­ual lex­i­con be­tween com­mu­nity mem­bers be­came a glob­ally cel­e­brated artis­tic mark of the Mate­bele. Her undy­ing vi­sion of all ob­jects as po­ten­tial can­vases, and her ded­i­ca­tion to teach­ing younger gen­er­a­tions the art form, re­in­force her ob­jec­tive of pre­serv­ing the Nde­bele knowl­edge sys­tems by ar­chiv­ing this vis­ual lex­i­con in a man­ner that sits com­fort­ably in the do­mes­tic space, the com­mer­cial world and the artis­tic sphere.

“The collaborations are quite fun for me be­cause I feel so spe­cial. What I learned from them was furthering my spirit of ubuntu. There has not been ex­ploita­tion on my side. I only ex­pe­ri­ence ea­ger­ness from peo­ple who ap­pre­ci­ate my work. Peo­ple re­ally want to learn. They re­spect me and my work, they know that I am the holder and the teacher of this beauty, so they would never try to ex­ploit me,” says Mahlangu, who is cau­tious enough to move in these global spa­ces with an in­tel­lec­tual prop­erty lawyer.

For these con­tin­ued efforts, Mahlangu was awarded an hon­orary doc­tor­ate by the Univer­sity of Jo­han­nes­burg’s fac­ulty of art, de­sign and ar­chi­tec­ture.

The teach­ing of art in part of her home in Math­om­both­i­ini near KwaMh­langa, Mpumalanga, con­tin­ues with fund­ing from her own pocket. Re­cently, the mu­nic­i­pal­ity and other spon­sors have con­trib­uted, en­abling it to be­come a for­malised in­dige­nous art school.

“I have al­ways had the calling to teach the science and sig­nif­i­cance of Nde­bele paint­ing, and why we paint. In my school, not only will I be teach­ing them the Nde­bele art form but also the lan­guage and cul­tural as­pects, along with the ori­gins of the Nde­bele peo­ple. You can­not sep­a­rate the art from the lan­guage, cul­ture and the peo­ple, be­cause that is where it came from.”

Mahlangu’s fo­cus is on isintu samaNde­bele (Nde­bele her­itage and cul­ture) and she hopes her efforts will en­cour­age the car­ri­ers of artis­tic in­dige­nous knowl­edge of South Africa’s other in­dige­nous groups to do the same.

“That is not my fo­cus; I am not the gate­keeper of all South African art. I only want to work with, teach and pre­serve Nde­bele art­work. That is what I know. I ap­pre­ci­ate other art forms com­ing out of the coun­try be­cause I don’t know their ori­gin.”

Af­ter spend­ing more than 40 years in the art world, Mahlangu is pleased with the canon of work she has man­aged to cre­ate, pre­serve and cel­e­brate Mate­bele. Although she is pleased with the ac­co­lades, she is aware that the work of preser­va­tion does not end.

“I’m con­tent with how far I have come but I will con­tinue to paint until I am no more. I just have one more dream to ful­fil. My dream is to re­ceive more ac­co­lades from var­i­ous gov­ern­ment de­part­ments. This will help with fund­ing for my school. But I also wish my art stays alive when I am no more.

“And when you speak of me, re­mem­ber me as a South African am­bas­sador who never grew tired of teach­ing and rep­re­sent­ing isintu.

An­cient script: Nde­bele art­work is de­rived from a his­tor­i­cal lex­i­con us­ing geo­met­ric and colour sym­bol­ism to con­vey mes­sages and has now be­come a recog­nis­able mark of Mate­bele iden­tity. Photo: Oupa Nkosi

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from South Africa

© PressReader. All rights reserved.