Sunday World (South Africa)

An icon loved abroad, ignored in South Africa

- Phumla Mkize ... but seriously

When @Anele_thethani on Thursday tweeted a picture of global art icon Esther Mahlangu captioned “If ‘overrated’ was a person”, I found it poignant, frankly. The views expressed by @ Anele_thethani in picture and a few words, are an expression of the hard work that we still need to do to change the way we think about ourselves and, most importantl­y, to love ourselves.

By the time I wrote this column, his tweet had 3 688 likes. We have a long way to go to renew our minds.

Oh, the joys of having world superstars, billionair­es and dignitarie­s cater to your whims, yet have children young enough to be your great grandchild­ren make light of the work you have been doing for 70 years.

Interestin­gly, it was a chat I had with the director of Melrose Gallery Graig Mark on the phone while sitting with artist-turned-curator Ruzy Rusike at the gallery that would give me the words I need to express.

Mark said during a period when the art sector is stagnant, it is the time people turn to people like Mahlangu to help the sector. “It is ignorance to criticise one of the few people who made a difference,” he said.

Mark, who represents Mahlangu, said: “The South African art sector has failed to recognise her. None of the major galleries has hosted solo shows of her work.”

Rusike tells me that they hosted a birthday celebratio­n for her at the gallery this month when she turned 87. It was an intimate affair with only Mahlangu, her family and a select people who have been supporting her and her work for years.

To celebrate this icon’s birthday with the public, the gallery has an installati­on of 87 of her paintings on view. Some of these paintings are fresh from exhibition at the internatio­nal art fair, AKAA, in Paris, France last month.

Mark tells me work is underway for her retrospect­ive exhibition, which will premiere in Joburg in 2024. The exhibition will include old and new works, essays, a documentar­y and a comprehens­ive publicatio­n.

The exhibition will then travel around the globe, gracing the world’s most respected museums. Only a few artists in this country can boast to have achieved this feat, Mark tells me.

And this is just a snippet of Mahlangu’s diary over the past few weeks.

I have spoken to gogo Mahlangu at length. I call her “granny” not only out of respect as my elder, but because she is still soldiering on with her God-given talent at her age and at a time she is so vulnerable after being attacked.

She remains humble despite her world revered status. For @Anele_ thethani to disparage the icon artist and her work is uncalled for, a rather ill-informed perception and perhaps ignorance. I condemn his tweet with the contempt it deserves.

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