Esther Mahlangu

About Artist: Born november 11th 1935 in Middleburg (South Africa).Esther Mahlangu lives in the village of Weltervrede in the Mpumalanga Province. She is a remarkable woman who against all odds, traveled and exhibited overseas in 1989(Les magiciens de la terre), in France a time when political turmoil at home and sanctions abroad made international participation only a dream for all but a few South African artists. In the tradition of the Ndebele,Esther Mahlangu was taught how to paint by her grandmother and mother at the age of 10. Mahlangu's artistic flair emerged when, at puberty, she underwent the traditional Ndebele practice in which young women are cloistered from society for a few months and taught the traditional craft of beadwork. These early lessons would later serve as training for her artistic career. The traditional Ndebele technique of wall painting entailed first finishing a house in cow dung, before decorating the walls with designs rendered in coloured clay. When she was growing up in the 1940s, the use of modern paints was introduced and the colourful geometrical shapes that have come to define Ndebele art also evolved at this time. It was these influences which would serve to inspire her work later in her career. As a teenager, Mahlangu became an expert in executing the traditional Ndebele art of wall painting, traditionally only done by women and on special occasions. Through her work, she became well known and began to receive commissions from many places. Though grounded in tradition, in the course of her work Mahlangu began to evolve, elaborate and innovate on the traditional designs and techniques. She engaged with the economics of the art industry, both to develop and reinforce her roots. She began to transpose these on canvas and other material to appeal to a wider audience. In this process she broke new ground, popularised her work and in turn, was challenged by artistic counter influences. In the course of her career, Mahlangu's work has undergone many transitions, even experimenting with the use of fluorescent vinyl paints. But as art critic Amelia Pleasant observed at Mahlangu's first solo exhibition in South Africa in 2003, 'she has returned to the natural, muted colours of clays and cow dung that give her work texture, perhaps reminiscent of her early childhood'. In her work, Mahlangu represents ordinary, every-day objects in the abstract, drawing freehand without prior measurement or sketches, and using feathers and bundled twigs as brushes as in the old way. Pleasant wrote: 'Each time a new glance is given to Mahlangu's mural paintings, the eye dances, swirls, and skips, finding movement in distinctly two-dimensional works'. Today Mahlangu's work is represented in private, corporate and public galleries around the world. Her village home in Mpumalanga is inundated with visitors from around the world, keen to explore her complex approach to wall decoration. Beside her own country, Mahlangu has exhibited in Australia, America, Japan and in many European countries. Some of her most famous murals have been exhibited at the New Identities Exhibition in the Bocum Museum in Germany, at the Virgin Atlantic's music store in Times Square, the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington DC and at the Civic Theatre in Johannesburg. Between 1980 and 1991, she was a resident at the Botshabelo open air museum which presents Ndebele culture to visitors. Over the past few years various factors have altered Ester Mahlangu’s art. Exposure to new materials, different techniques and to the collecting art world, has brought about new reasoning behind her work. She has put her adaptations of the distinctive highly coloured geometric Ndebele designs on everything from cars to airplanes. One such example is in 1991 when she was invited to paint a prototype of the new BMW 525i model. Esther's car, eleventh in the Art Car Collection, was the first to be decorated by a woman artist and as a black woman artist from a little-known South African community to be included in a prestigious international artistic line-up of artists including Frank Stella, Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol and David Hockney. All her international exhibitions have presented her with unique and new challenges, which she has approached, without discarding the constraints of her traditional culture. Esther Mahlangu has spent a life dedicated to the art of painting and the evolution of traditional painting. She has promoted her people's culture with integrity and sensitivity, and has successfully carved out a career in art. At 70, Mahlangu still experiences great joy when painting. She continues to present her work in group and solo exhibitions around the world. Mahlangu is involved in sustainable development in her community and trains young women in this art of their forebears. She enjoys the company of her 11 grandchildren and seven great grandchildren. Mahlangu is the recipient of the Mpumalanga Arts and Culture Award; an award from the French Ministry of Culture; the Radio Ndebele Award (1988 and 2001); the Nassau County Commendation, and the Incorporated Village of Hempstead Citation (the latter two from the United States of America).

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