Sunday Times

‘Then I knew I was good at painting’


A retrospect­ive celebratin­g the life and work of Esther Mahlangu follows the 88-year-old painter and mural artist’s unusual trajectory from rural South Africa to global acclaim, writes Andrea Nagel. After Cape Town, it will be taken on an internatio­nal tour

If you started at the end of the recently launched and impressive retrospect­ive celebratin­g the life and work of Dr Esther Mahlangu, known respectful­ly as Mam’ Esther, you’d encounter a weather-beaten sign painted by the internatio­nally acclaimed artist: “Ndebele Art School for Children: Done by Esther Mahlangu, THE 1st LADY TO VISIT OVER SEA (sic)”. Until it was moved to the current exhibition at The Iziko South African National Gallery in Cape Town, the sign had stood outside Mam’ Esther’s home, Ndebele village in the tiny rural community of Weltevrede­n — old Dutch/Afrikaans for “satisfied ”— in the KwaMhlanga region of Mpumalanga, a three-hour drive from Johannesbu­rg.

It’s in that small, dusty village — brought to life by the vibrant, graphic stokes of Ndebele patterns — that Mahlangu may have stayed her entire life, painting traditiona­l Ndebele designs on the houses of her village, like her mother and her mother’s mother had done for decades, had she not been approached by French curator André Magnin, who was putting together a modern and contempora­ry art show in Paris called Magiciens de la Terre (Magicians of the Earth) at the Centre Pompidou.

Magnin found Mam’ Esther at the Botshabelo open-air museum of Ndebele culture where she worked, after he had visited her village, seen her home and inquired after the artist.

“They showed me a photo they’d taken,” said Mam’ Esther. “And I said, ‘That one, that’s my house!’ So they said I should go overseas to France to paint. I said OK. Then I asked where is France.” That was in 1989.

Now, 35 years later, Mam’ Esther has been to Italy, Germany, Switzerlan­d, Spain, Belgium, Brazil and Australia. She’s visited Lisbon, Nantes, Livorno, Lyon and Amsterdam. She’s travelled through the US, to Washington DC, New York, California, Charleston, Pennsylvan­ia, Pittsburgh, Atlanta, South Carolina, New Jersey, New Orleans and Texas. She said: “In all the countries I’ve been to, people loved me very much.”

The exhibition, which will tour around the world after its run at Iziko, is called Then I Knew I Was Good at Painting: Esther Mahlangu, A Retrospect­ive. It is curated by Nontobeko Ntombela, a member of the faculty at the Wits School of Arts at the University of the Witwatersr­and, Johannesbu­rg. Ntombela emphasised the name of the exhibition at the launch.

“There’s a story behind the name, and it’s one that’s often told by Mam’ Esther,” said Ntombela. Mam’ Esther was 10 years old when she had an urge to paint the façade of her house, following the fascinatio­n she’d experience­d watching the elder women in her village paint their homes.

“When I started, my mother and grandmothe­r weren’t happy with my painting at all,” the 88-year-old admitted. “When they went for lunch, I’d go to where they were painting and paint as well. I thought I’d done something beautiful, but when they came back they said, ‘Esther, what have you made here!’

“They said I should not begin by painting the front of the house — I should start at the back. They sent me to the barns. Eventually, after being told again and again that my designs were wrong, the community began to like them and my mother said: ‘Okay, you can come to the front now.’ Then I knew I was good at painting.”

Ever authentic, humble and an obvious iconoclast, with pride and self-respect radiating from her tiny frame (always immaculate­ly robed in technicolo­ur

Ndebele blankets with intricate beadwork

adorning her neck and ankles on top of the copper rings that elongate these features) Mam’ Esther explained her journey from rural rebel to iconic artist on the internatio­nal stage.

“In the beginning, your family will help you paint your Cathane. They will come and check how well you do. They will check how well you were taught back home. They will check if your lines are straight or shaky. If they are not straight, they’ll know your family didn’t teach you well. What made me want to be good was that I didn’t want to get laughed at by my in-laws.”

Ntombela said: “The retrospect­ive exhibition pays homage to Dr Mahlangu’s unique approach to art, which intersects African culture with modernity and the contempora­ry, symbolisin­g pride, selfdeterm­ination and innovation. It’s not just an exhibition; it’s a celebratio­n of Dr Mahlangu’s voice, agency and pioneering spirit.” I imagine Mam’ Esther would say, “Finally, thank goodness, against all odds, I have made my in-laws proud.”

Esther Nostokana Nagiyana Nikwanbi Mahlangu was born in 1935 in Mpumalanga and spent her life, well into her middle age, painting her specific interpreta­tion of Ndebele designs on the houses of her village. She’d been painting for more than 40 years before she met the French curator who exposed her artwork to the world at his Paris show. That exposure led to an invitation in 1991 to participat­e, as the first woman artist, in the BMW Art Car project alongside artists such as Andy Warhol,

David Hockney, Roy Lichtenste­in and Frank Stella. She used the traditiona­l brush made from chicken feathers — a kwaas — to paint the car. “When you hold it, you can feel it when you move straight,” she said. “You can feel it through your fingers that you are making straight lines. A ruler is not needed.” This amazing technical ability and the extraordin­ary confidence of the diminutive but assured woman from a tiny Middelburg village captivated the world.

At the launch, Ntombela walked us through the show. One of the final exhibits is the BMW 525i which made Mam’ Esther famous. The curator of prints and drawings at Iziko, Andrea Lewis, said that it was a monumental achievemen­t getting the car into the gallery. “We tried everything possible, until the only option available was to get a crane to airlift the car into the courtyard. It was a mammoth task — we removed the doors of the gallery — but it was worth it to bring the artwork home.”

Thomas Girst, global head of cultural engagement at the BMW group, flew in for the occasion. “As incongruou­s as it may have seemed to paint a German automobile in traditiona­l tribal print, it totally makes sense,” said Girst. “This model comes out of the late ’80s. BMW built this series in SA — they have names.” The 325i and the 325iS models, known colloquial­ly and respective­ly as iBotsotso and iGusheshe, were popularise­d on the street as

“spinners”. There’s a very strong link between these cars and South African street life. Mam’ Esther endorsed this coolness.

As we were guided through the gallery by Ntombela, the same question arose: This is an amazing achievemen­t for a South African artist who is collected by museums and galleries around the world as well as by private collectors including Alicia Keys and her husband Swizz Beatz, Oprah Winfrey, Rihanna, Pharrell Williams, John Legend and Trevor Noah. Why has she been underrepre­sented at home over the years?

Ntombela doesn’t really have an answer for this question. It’s probably because, growing up in the country, with Ndebele dolls sold at every curio shop and Ndebele designs common in our collective cultural and visual vernacular, perhaps the general South African public finds these images slightly on the kitsch side. After all, what is kitsch if not the repetition of motifs to the point at which they become pastiche and uninterest­ing?

The retrospect­ive puts to bed these notions. Mam’ Esther’s contributi­on to the art world is as sophistica­ted as it is subtle, as monumental as it is humble. It offers us South Africans (before it heads off to tour the world) the opportunit­y to appreciate and laud one of our own — to take pride in what South Africans in all their diversity are able to achieve. She expresses herself, and by extension all of us, by developing the range of her traditiona­l practices, refining and expanding her cultural heirlooms to tell a part of the South African story to the world. And she remains, at 88, super cool at doing just that.

Mam’ Esther, who is not only a sage, but has street smarts too, was invited at the launch to stand up and say a few words. She said: “Hello everybody, hello.”

She wasn’t talking only to the assembled guests, she was talking to the world. She was talking for us.

The retrospect­ive features more than 100 contempora­ry artworks, historic photograph­s and a short film. It is on at the Iziko Gallery in Cape Town until August 11.

 ?? ?? A bowl and highheeled shoes are among the many everyday objects Mahlangu has decorated in her distinctiv­e style.
A bowl and highheeled shoes are among the many everyday objects Mahlangu has decorated in her distinctiv­e style.
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 ?? Pictures: Supplied ?? The BMW 525i painted by Esther Mahlangu is lifted into the Iziko Gallery in Cape Town.
Pictures: Supplied The BMW 525i painted by Esther Mahlangu is lifted into the Iziko Gallery in Cape Town.
 ?? Picture: Sebabatso Mosamo ?? Esther Mahlangu in her art studio at her home in Mpumalanga.
Picture: Sebabatso Mosamo Esther Mahlangu in her art studio at her home in Mpumalanga.

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