Esther Nikwambi Mahlangu was born on 11 November 1935 in Middelburg, Mpumalanga, South Africa, and belongs to the South Ndebele people. Mahlangu began painting at 10 years of age, and was taught the skill of mural painting by her mother and grandmother, following a tradition of her native South Ndebele people for females to paint the exterior of houses. It is in this cultural tradition where Mahlangu began her artistic journey.
Mahlangu's art references patterns found in clothing and jewellery of the Ndebele people. The patterns she uses are typically very colourful and geometric. Her paintings are large in scale.
Mahlangu first gained international attention in 1989 at a European art exposition titled Magiciens de la terre (Magicians of the World). Later in 1991, she was commissioned by BMW to create an art car, as other BMW Art Car creators had done before (including Andy Warhol, David Hockney and Frank Stella). The car, a BMW 525i, was the first "African Art Car" and was painted with typical motifs of the Ndebele tribe. She was the first non-Western person and female to design one of these art cars. The car was later exhibited at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, DC in 1994. Between 1980 and 1991 she was a resident at the Botshabelo open-air museum, which presents Ndebele culture to visitors.
Her designs were also reproduced in 1997 on the tails of British Airways planes and more recently the same technique was used by the artist to paint on the new Fiat 500 on the occasion of the exhibition "Why Africa?" (2007, Turin).
Mahlangu is one of the African artists whose art is often exhibited internationally. Her works are in major private collections including that of The Contemporary African Art Collection (CAAC) of Jean Pigozzi and in many Western museums. Despite being an internationally recognized artist, Esther Mahalangu lives in her village in close contact with her culture.
Mahlangu follows a local tradition through which this particular type of painting technique is handed down in the family, communicated, learned and transmitted only by women (in the past). These paintings are closely connected with the ancient tradition of decorating the houses on the occasion of the rite of passage for boys. Between 18 and 20 years of age, the youth of the tribe go to "a school of circumcision", the ritual that confirm their passage to adulthood. To celebrate this event the women completely repaint the inside and the outside of their houses with a preparation of cow dung and natural pigments. Brightly coloured acrylic paints are also applied in designs outlined by black lines. Although seemingly simple, the geometric abstraction that is revealed by these paintings is underscored by the constant repetition and symmetry of such simple shapes that make the whole work quite complex.
The art of Esther Mahlangu highlights the tension between local and global, between the anchor and detachment. Despite continuing to use the same "artistic vocabulary" closely tied to her traditions, Mahlangu has applied the designs to various objects including canvas, sculpture, ceramics, automobiles and airplanes. She has also collaborated with various brands like BMW, Fiat, EYTYS, Melissa's, Beleverde and the British Museum.
Esther Mahlangu's 1991 BMW Artcar will be on view at the British Museum as part of 'South Africa: the art of a nation', from 27 October 2016 - 27 February 2017. The new BMW Individual 7 series with unique internal wooden trims painted by her was exhibited at Frieze Art Fair 2016 with accompanying exhibition of work co-curated by BMW and 34FineArt. She recently completed a special edition premium Belvedere Vodka bottle design (50% of all profits to help fight HIV/AIDS in Africa). As an artist in residence, Mahlangu was commissioned in 2014 by the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts to create two large works of art.
Mahlangu directs a school which teaches young girls not only painting but also the technique of painting designs on particular compositions of beads. The tradition is not a static entity. As the work of the same Mahlangu suggests, "tradition" is a mobile field, future-oriented and ready to incorporate diverse stimuli. In fact, although South Africa is now one of the African States which is able to facilitate and promote the work of their artists both nationally and internationally with the likes of the biennial event in Johannesburg, the work of Esther Mahlangu is even more courageous because she was born and grew up in political and social turmoil.
Esther Mahlangu has worked tirelessly exposing and developing her talent travelling around the world, and she is very passionate about sharing her knowledge with the younger generation so that she leaves a legacy that lives on for generations to come.
Exhibitions and projects
2016 Esther Mahlangu Individual 7 series BMW and accompanying exhibition co-curated by BMW and 34FineArt, Frieze Art Fair, London, UK
2015 Esther Mahlangu 80, curated by 34FineArt, UCT Irma Stern Museum, Cape Town, SA
2014 Esther Mahlangu: An Artistic Residency, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Virginia, USA
2012 Overlay, 34FineArt, Cape Town, SA
2010 Centro Espositivo St. Art, Calenzano, Italy
2008 Esther Mahlangu: Reacquiring, The Kyle Kauffman Gallery, New York, USA
2007 Esther Mahlangu 2007, 34LONG, Cape Town, SA
2007 Why Africa?, Fiat 500, Turin, Italy
2005 Esther Mahlangu, 34LONG, Cape Town, SA
2003 Esther Mahlangu 2003, curated by 34FineArt, UCT Irma Stern Museum, Cape Town, SA
1998 Museum of Oceanian and African Art, Paris, France
1997 BA Airways Tail paintings, UK
1991 BMW Art Cars Commission, Germany
2015 Imibala Gallery, Somerset West, SA
2015 Sneaker design with Swedish Company Eytys, Paris Fashion Week, France
2015 40 years of BMW Art Cars, BMW Museum, Munchen, Germany
2014 Traditional African Murals, Museum of African Art, Belgrade, Serbia
2014 Look Mickey!, 34FineArt, Cape Town, SA
2014 Les Magiciens de la Terre, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, France
2014 Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao, Spain
2014 Cape Town Art Fair, Cape Town, SA
2013 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair, London, UK
2013 Urban Interpretation, Graffik Gallery, London, UK
2013 FourWalls, 34FineArt, Cape Town, SA
2012 Art Drive! Exhibition, Great Eastern Street Car Park in Shoreditch, London, UK
2012 Urban Interpretation, 34FineArt, Cape Town, SA
2012 Blend, 34FineArt, Cape Town, SA
2011 Durban Tourism Indaba, Durban, SA
2011 Ensemble, 34FineArt, Cape Town, SA
2011 ArtMonaco'1 1, Monaco
2011 Museum of Arts and Design, New York, USA
2010 Africa. Objetos y Sujetos, Teatro Fernan Gomez, Centro de Arte, Madrid, Spain
2010 ATASA Trust Southern Africa Handcraft & Ndebele Art Exhibition, Newtown, SA
2010 La mostra sulla Regina d'Africa Esther Mahlangu, Napoli, Italy
2010 Museum of Arts and Design, New York City, USA
2010 FIFA Official Artist, Italy
2009 Sortileges, Fondation pour L'art Contemporain, Claudine et Jean-Marc Salomon, Alex, France
2009 3rd Moscow Biennale of Contemporary Art, Moscow, Russia
2009 - 2010 Africa? Una nuova storia, Complesso del Vittoriano, Rome, Italy
2008 The Speed Art Museum, Louisville, Kentucky, USA
2008 Denver Museum of Art, Denver, Colorado, USA
2008 Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, USA
2007 Why Africa?, Pinacoteca Giovanni e Marella Agnelli, Turin, Italy
2007 Painted the New Fiat 500 - "Why Africa?", The Pigozzi Collection, Italy
2007 SA Art—Signs, Danubiana Meulensteen Art Museum, Bratislava, Slovakia
2007 Berlin and Beyond Art in Public Places, Florida, USA
2007 Durban Art Gallery, Durban, SA
2007 Orlando Museum of Art, Orlando, USA
2007 The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, Maryland, USA
2007 Tacoma Museum of Art, Tacoma, Washington, USA
2006 100% African; The Jean Pigozzi Contemporary African Art Collection, Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao, Spain
2006 Indianapolis Museum of Art, Indianapolis, Indiana, USA
2006 Memory Innovation Tradition, 34 LONG, Cape Town, SA