Mahlangu show­cases Nde­bele her­itage to the world

Vuk'uzenzele - - Front Page - More Mat­shediso

Dr Es­ther Mahlangu (82) is the per­fect em­bod­i­ment of what can be achieved by em­brac­ing your her­itage. Mahlangu is known all over the world as the South African artist from the Nde­bele na­tion who uses her con­tem­po­rary paint­ing style to rep­re­sent amaNde­bele.

Her work has been fea­tured by var­i­ous lo­cal and in­ter­na­tional brands such as BMW, Honda, Bri­tish Air­ways, Al­bany and Tas­tic rice, to men­tion a few. It has also been show­cased in many art ex­hi­bi­tions across the globe.

Vuk’uzen­zele vis­ited her home near Mtham­both­ini in Mpumalanga to speak to her about the im­por­tance of em­brac­ing her­itage and cul­ture.

“My her­itage is part of who I am. It is im­por­tant for ev­ery­one to love who they are and re­spect their cul­ture. Re­spect­ing your cul­ture can take you places and also put food on your ta­ble,” she said.

Youth and her­itage

Mahlangu said young peo­ple should take it from her that stick­ing to their roots and em­brac­ing their tra­di­tions and cul­ture could be their ticket to the world.

She has proudly em­braced her Nde­bele cul­ture through­out her life, in how she

DE­SPITE HAV­ING no for­mal ed­u­ca­tion, iconic Nde­bele artist Es­ther Mahlangu has gained in­ter­na­tional fame, thanks to the pas­sion she has for her her­itage.

dresses, her hair­style and, most im­por­tantly, how she has dec­o­rated the in­te­rior and ex­te­rior of her home with iconic Nde­bele shapes and colours.

The geo­met­ric pat­terns painted on houses an­nounce events like a birth, death, wed­ding, or when a boy goes off to the ini­ti­a­tion school. “Even when a woman gets mar­ried, she is ex­pected to paint her own house by her­self to show her in-laws that she has been brought up well,” Mahlangu added.

Mahlangu was taught to paint by her mother and grand­mother and first tack­led her own patch of wall when she was 10 years old. She loved paint­ing but had no idea that one day she would make a liv­ing out of it and even travel the world.

“I grew up see­ing my mother and grand­mother do the paint­ings at home,” she said. One day, when they took a break, lit­tle Es­ther snuck in and did a bit of paint­ing of her own. She was caught and scolded but the al­lure was too great and she con­tin­ued to sneak­ily add her own daubs of colour. Even­tu­ally, her grand­mother al­lowed her to claim a spot be­hind the house as her own.

“They later re­alised that I had a pas­sion for it and I had im­proved, so they fi­nally al­lowed me to paint the front of the house where ev­ery­one could see. They were im­pressed with what I could do,” she re­called.

Back then, Mahlangu said they mixed cow dung with white soil, red soil or black soil in or­der to get the colours they wanted. Chicken feath­ers were used as brushes.

“When I got mar­ried, I was al­ready mas­ter­ing the art of paint­ing, and my in-laws were re­ally im­pressed. They could see that I was raised well,” she said.

Mahlangu’s first in­ter­na­tional trip

Years later – in the late 1980s, her colour­ful Mid­del­burg home drew the at­ten­tion of French tourists who were so blown away by her work that they com­mis­sioned her to do work in France.

“They took a pic­ture of my house. It was a long time ago. Nel­son Man­dela was still in prison then. The tourists went to look for me im­me­di­ately and when they found me, they told me that they wanted me to go to France with them to do the paint­ing in their coun­try,” she re­called.

“I had to get per­mis­sion from my chil­dren and started mak­ing ar­range­ments to get a visa. About five months later, my doc­u­ments were ready and they came to fetch me. It was my first flight and so I ar­ranged to travel with one of my chil­dren. When I ar­rived in Paris, I was shocked to see that they had built a house ex­actly like mine and they just wanted me to dec­o­rate it like I had done my own in South Africa,” she shared.

She has since been in de­mand and toured many coun­tries across the globe to show­case her ta­lent and the rich Nde­bele her­itage. Her work has taken her to Ja­pan, Por­tu­gal, Italy, Spain, the United States of Amer­ica, Ger­many, Switzer­land, Aus­tralia, Brazil and Eng­land.

World-wide recog­ni­tion

She has col­lected a num­ber of ac­co­lades over the years, in­ter­na­tion­ally and lo­cally, in­clud­ing an hon­orary doc­tor­ate and an Or­der of Ikhamanga along with be­ing the first woman in the world to cre­ate art­work on the BMW 5251.

“All these awards and recog­ni­tion for my work mean a lot to me as an in­di­vid­ual and a Nde­bele woman. I am re­ally happy and it en­cour­ages me to con­tinue in­spir­ing oth­ers to love their cul­ture,” she said.

“All my life, I have main­tained the same hair­style and worn my tra­di­tional re­galia. This is who I am and I am proud of it. I wish young peo­ple could go back to their roots and em­brace who they are so that the world can recog­nise them for who they are,” she said.

Mahlangu had three chil­dren but they have all passed on. How­ever, she has passed on her knowl­edge to her grand­chil­dren and has also opened the Nde­bele Art School for chil­dren in her area.

“Some of my stu­dents have al­ready trav­elled over­seas to show­case their tal­ents,” she said.

While Mahlangu’s work has evolved over the years, and she paints on var­i­ous medi­ums, in­clud­ing can­vas and ce­ramic, she con­tin­ues to paint free­hand with­out prior mea­sure­ment or sketches and to use feath­ers and bun­dles of twigs as brushes.

“I wish young peo­ple could

go back to their roots and em­brace who they are…”

Dr Es­ther Mahlangu was be­stowed the Or­der of iKhamanga by for­mer Pres­i­dent Thabo Mbeki.

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