Mam' Esther turns 85 this month, and gives SA a gift

10 November 2020 - 06:00 By alex patrick
Dr Esther Mahlangu continues to paint with a feather brush as per the Ndebele visual traditions.
Dr Esther Mahlangu continues to paint with a feather brush as per the Ndebele visual traditions.
Image: Clint Strydom

Ndebele artist and national icon Dr Esther Mahlangu celebrates her 85th birthday this month and will launch her largest solo exhibition on November 19 to commemorate the occasion.

Titled “Esther Mahlangu 85", the online exhibition is curated by Ruzy Rusike and will be presented online and at The Melrose Gallery in Johannesburg until December 20.

It will showcase a body of artworks created over the past three years, including the bold, geometric paintings for which she has become so globally acclaimed, and an exciting new series of sculptures.

But Mahlangu won't stop there. After the opening of the exhibition she will unveil two 16m paintings at the Southgate Mall and launch a range of handbags with collaborator Carol Bouwer. She's also working on the touring retrospective of her work set for 2023.

An untitled abstract work by Dr Esther Mahlangu produced in 2019.
An untitled abstract work by Dr Esther Mahlangu produced in 2019.
Image: Supplied

Mahlangu is driven by the need to “pass on our tradition from generation to generation. So they can see where Ndebele comes from.”

“While I have worked with many respected museums, curators, art fairs, galleries and global brands I have had very few solo exhibitions in SA. It is exciting for me to be launching one of my largest solos ever at the age of 85 in South Africa so that my own people can experience and enjoy these paintings and realise their value.

“I love art. It is part of me and I can’t separate it from who I am. Many people ask me when I am going to retire. But making art is not a job to me, it is a major part of who I am and I will continue to paint as long as I am able.”

Mahlangu's artistic journey began when she underwent a traditional Ndebele coming-of-age ritual where young women are taught traditional beadwork.

Her work is inspired by the traditional finishing of a house which entails covering the walls in decorated coloured clay. In the 1940s the Ndebele started using paints and colouring the walls in geometric shapes. As a teen the notoriety for her unique designs got her commissions for her work.

Mam Esther, as she is affectionately named, is also famous for her collaboration with German luxury vehicle manufacturer BMW when in 1999 she was asked to decorate the 525i sedan.

This year she was commissioned by a local Rolls-Royce patron to create a work of art for a Phantom — the car has been named “The Mahlangu”.

Mahlangu is known for her abstract works created with the traditional Ndebele angular shapes and her vivid colours and black lines which has caught the eye in high-art circles.

Her paintings and sculptures have been exhibited at the Museum of Arts and Design, New York, The British Museum, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao, the National Museum of African Art at The Smithsonian Institution and, of course, famously at the Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, when she made her debut in Europe in the late eighties.

Oprah Winfrey, Alicia Keys, Will Smith, Usher, Black Coffee and Trevor Noah are just some of the celebrities who own her work.

And many of these celebrities continue to make pilgrimages to her Mpumalanga homestead to pay their respects.

Esther Mahlangu 85’ can be viewed online from November 11 here.