National treasure: Artist a living artwork

17 November 2015 - 10:20 By Melanie Farrell

Ndebele artist Esther Mahlangu turned 80 last Wednesday in Cape Town and woke up at 5am. ''I always wake up at that time. I can't wait to wake up to paint," she says. On her birthday she had breakfast at the hotel with Elizabeth Masangu, one of her granddaughters and her personal assistant. The rest of her birthday was nonstop.First, a radio interview, followed by a walk on the beach, lunch and an afternoon of interviews at the Irma Stern Museum in Rosebank. Then she opened her 80th birthday exhibition at the museum.Swathed in a traditional Ndebele blanket, adorned in bangles, anklets and necklaces, she is an artwork herself - and art is her life.The internationally renowned artist has been making art since she was 10 years old when her mother let her help paint in the black lines on murals.Her meticulous designs are calculated by eye, and yet her works display perfect symmetry and enviable precision.Mahlangu was ''discovered" by the international art scene at the age of 54 when she was invited to take part in the Magiciens de la Terre exhibition in Paris. Since that trip, in 1989, Mahlangu has crisscrossed the globe, applying her distinctive designs to buildings, cars, skate decks and, recently, shoes.Though she's firmly established in the contemporary art scene on a global level she holds on to the essence of who she is. ''I'm Ndebele. I live in a village in Mpumalanga and I use traditional paintbrushes that I make out of chicken feathers plucked from my chickens.''I wake up, sweep outside my house, feed my chickens, wash my face, make pap for breakfast, and then paint until lunchtime. After lunch - spinach that I grow in my vegetable patch, with pap - I teach schoolchildren to paint. I also run a shop where people can buy artwork."In a recent collaboration with Swedish fashion house Eytys, Mahlangu designed the Esther Mahlangu Shoe - a leather trainer with her design embroidered onto it. They took to the Paris Fashion Week catwalk this year and will be on sale next year.Any plans to slow down ?''I'll have to at some time, but not right now," she says firmly.''I worry about who will follow in my footsteps. I've trained lots of Ndebele artists but it's not easy to make a living as an artist in South Africa."Mahlangu has another collaboration lined up for next year. ''The UK street artist STIK is working on a canvas to send to me and then I will add my painting to his art."Cutting edge, contemporary and cool, Mahlangu is a gogo with lots of go.Esther Mahlangu 80 is on at the UCT Irma Stern Museum until December 2,

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