#AfricanArt: South African artist Esther Mahlangu aims to preserve her culture through art



81-year-old Esther Nikwambi Mahlangu has been painting since she was 10 years old and is known for bold, large-scale artworks that reference her Ndebele heritage.

She is on a mission to preserve her culture through her world-renowned creations. While Mahlangu’s artistic foundation is in the centuries-long tradition of Ndebele craft, she has developed a visual lexicon and color palette that is specific to her.

Mahlangu was born in 1935 on a farm near Middelburg in Mpumalanga Province. Her mother, like her grandmother and great grandmother before her, was a simple woman who looked after her family and occupied herself with traditional wall painting and beadwork. During winter most of the Ndebele women kept themselves busy by doing decorations in the surrounding areas, vying to outperform each other with their painting skills. Their designs were austere and uncluttered, handed down by tradition from one generation to the next. Drawings and paintings were done with fingers since brushes were unknown in the early days.


Road to fame

In 1986 researchers from Paris travelled the world to document traditional art, cultures and homesteads. They visited Weltevrede, Kwamhlanga, took photographs of Esther’s eye-catching house with its exterior decorations while she was at work at Botshabelo Ndebele Museum near Middelburg. Astonished at the photographs, she confirmed that the house was indeed hers.


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.[2][4] She was the first non-Western person and female to design one of these art cars.

BMW Individual 7 Series

This year she teamed up with the German car giants again for a new project.

BMW recently commissioned the artist to paint the interior panels of a BMW Individual 7 Series. The car decorated with Mahlangu’s work was unveiled at this year’s Frieze Fair in London with the car going up for auction at the same event. Her painted artworks for BMW Number 12 car is being exhibited at the British Museum as part of ‘South Africa: the art of a nation’.


In September, she unveiled a partnership with Belvedere, teaming up with the beverage company for their RED campaign, in the fight against AIDS.

She teamed up with Swedish sneaker brand Eytys to create a special pair of sneakers embroidered with her art work. Her paint work has even been featured on the tails of British Airways planes.


Esther Mahlangu is very famous in South Africa and across the globe but she maintains that she’s still the same person.

” … My art has taken me all over the world and I have seen many places,” she said in a statement. “I have painted many walls and objects and my work is in many museums but I am still Esther Mahlangu from Mpumalanga in South Africa…”


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