/ 27 February 2024

Mahlangu’s show traces the patterns of her career

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Vehicle for art: Esther Mahlangu poses with a BMW covered in her work at her retrospective in Cape Town. Photo: Marco Longari/AFP

From an old BMW painted in colourful shapes, to abstract works and historic photographs, a retrospective of the work of celebrated South African artist Esther Mahlangu opened this week in Cape Town.

The exhibition, at the Iziko South African National Gallery, follows the 88-year-old painter and mural artist’s unusual trajectory from rural South Africa to global acclaim. After Cape Town, it will be taken on an international tour.

Despite having no formal art training, Mahlangu earned an international reputation with works referencing her Ndebele heritage and using skills that have been passed down for generations.

“It’s in my genes to paint Ndebele,” the artist, wearing traditional, brightly coloured blue, yellow and brown garments and jewellery — and white takkies, said in an interview. 

Mahlangu learnt the art of Ndebele design as a child from her mother and grandmother.

Using a chicken feather, she first painted mud huts and on chipboard before moving on to luxury cars, vodka bottles, skateboards and footwear, as her intricate patterns became huge commercial hits.

“The Ndebele art is within me; I was born with it. It is important for me — I don’t pretend to love it, I love it,” she said. 

The retrospective features pictures, a short film and more than 100 contemporary works. 

Among them is Mahlangu’s iconic BMW Artcar — a vehicle she painted with her trademark colourful geometric shapes in the 1990s as part of a collaboration with the German carmaker. 

The artist said she was hard-pressed to pick her best work. 

“I love everything I have painted, everything! 

“I have no favourite,” she said. 

Mahlangu’s first big international break came in 1989, when she was 54 years old. 

Her ornately decorated house had caught the eye of French researchers who invited her to the Pompidou Centre in Paris.

However, South Africa was not quick to recognise Mahlangu’s talent — she gained international prominence at a time when the art scene here was focused on more contemporary styles.

“The retrospective pays homage to Esther Mahlangu’s unique approach to art, which intersects African culture with modernity and the contemporary, symbolising pride, self-determination and innovation,” said curator Nontobeko Ntombela.

After Cape Town, the exhibition is scheduled to move to Johannesburg before departing for the US and beyond. — AFP