One of South Africa’s most widely recognised artists, Esther Mahlangu has been painting for more than 70 years with no sign of her spirit or popularity waning.
Born in 1935 near Middleburg, this maven of Ndebele art started painting at the age of 10, but as her mother and grandmother were not too keen on the child’s doodles around the front door, she had to practise her hand on the back walls of the house until they were satisfied with the amateur’s skills.
Ester prefers traditional tools: brushes made of chicken feathers, fat daubing brushes made from the baboon tail plant and her own fingers. Her style blends the old and the new, honouring the designs of her ancestors yet unafraid of experimenting with new ideas and media.
‘I realise that the old must change otherwise it dies.’
Her work is characterised by fluorescent colours, bold zigzags and razor blade motifs in at geometric shapes outlined in crisp black lines. Always working freehand with no preliminary sketches, no matter the scale, her compositions are harmonious in their symmetry. When not working on a regular surface, she stretches and compresses her designs to echo the form of the object, be it a skating deck, mannequin or luxury sedan.
Esther’s painting was brought to international audiences in 1989 when she participated in the Magiciennes de la Terre (Magicians of the Earth) exhibition at the Pompidou Centre in Paris. Although not without controversy, this mega-show was the first to present a global overview of contemporary art, showing Western and non-Western artists side by side.
In 1991 Esther became the first woman to receive a commission to paint one of BMW’s Art Cars, following in the footsteps of Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein and Alexander Calder.
She’s also worked with Fiat, Fifa, footwear brand Melissa, British Airways and in 2015, the year of her 80th birthday, Swedish brand Eytys for its launch of the Eytys x Esther Mahlangu sneakers at Paris Fashion Week. Embroidered on suede sneakers, her signature geometric patterns overlaid a wash of blue that wrapped each shoe’s heel.
Esther moves effortlessly between art and design,tradition and innovation, illustrating that these categories are perhaps just a little arbitrary and less important than hard work, joie de vivre and a spirit of Ubuntu.
Text by Annemi Conradie
Eytys x Esther Mahlangu collaboration
Esther Mahlangu was portrayed in her home in the Mpumalangu province by photographer Travys Owen. To discover more of Travys’ work, click HERE.
Photography: Travys Owen
Production: Gabrielle Kannemeyer
Photographer’s assistant: Aart Verrips
Special thanks to Andries Loots & Cornwell Ray Zulu
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Tammy Joubert has a particular interest in decor and architectural design trends and how they coexist with graphic design and art, especially in a South African context. When she’s not illustrating or painting, she enjoys exploring peculiar places in Cape Town, reading Afrikaans Poetry and the occasional glass of red wine.
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