Esther Mahlangu (born in 1935, Middeleburg, South Africa) is part of the Ndebele community in the Gauteng, located north of Pretoria. The Ndebele, unlike many other tribes in South Africa, have managed to preserve their centuries’ old ancestral traditions. Despite being a patriarchal society, artistic heritage is handed down from mother to daughter; as a young woman reaches puberty she withdraws from male society for three months and is taught the ceremonial patterns of Ndebele beadwork—in the nineteenth century this tradition was extended to decorative wall paintings, also executed exclusively by the Ndebele women.

Esther Mahlangu is an important proponent of this tradition. She draws freehand, without first measuring or sketching, using luminous and high-contrast vinyl paints that lend extraordinary vigor to her murals. While at a glance purely abstract, her compositions are built upon a highly inventive system of signs and symbols. Mahlangu is the first Ndebele artist to transpose wall paintings onto canvases and to take the conventions of her artwork into the larger arena. In 1989 she came to Paris to create murals Magiciens de la Terre exhibition, and by agreeing to undertake further commissioned works for public buildings like the Civic Theater of Johannesburg, for museums, for BMW, for Comme des Garçons, Mahlangu has made Ndebele art celebrated world over. She has stated: “My mother and grandmother taught me to paint when I was ten years old. I have been busy with it ever since and have always liked it. When I am painting my heart is very wide, it reaches out. It makes me feel very, very happy.”


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