Woman’s brush legacy inspires greatness
A simple black line is the first stroke of her paintings.
People often ask if she starts with preliminary drawings before she puts paint onto canvass. The answer is “NO”
On my recently trip to Mpumalanga, she took a feather dipped it into droopy cow dung then started painting. All this is first imagined in her mind. Esther Mahlangu was born in 1935 on a farm near Middelburg in Mpumalanga. Mahlangu embarked on the inevitable and meticulous journey of painting traditional Ndebele designs when she was only 10 years old. Since then, she has taken her art from a rural village in Mpumalanga to far flung places across the globe making a name for herself in the process.
A torch bearer of the Ndebele culture, Mahlangu is an expert in executing the traditional Ndebele art of wall painting, traditionally only done by women and on special occasions.
Through her work and many others like her, the Ndebele tradition has over the years been kept alive and passed from generation to generation by torch bearers like herself.
In the little town of Mthambothini in Weltevrede in Mpumalanga’s cultural heartland home to the KwaNdebele, from the entrance one would not mistake the trademark of traditionally painted geometric designs of the homesteads, the shapes used often inspired by their intricately fashioned beadwork.
My first stop was at artwork of the huts, the glowing murals on internationally acclaimed Ndebele artist, Esther Mahlangu ’s family homestead, bear foot and lying on her stomach outside her thatch house, traditionally finger painting using diluted cow dung , she was doing final touches to one of her paintings.
Here l witnessed the Ndebele art at its purest, the beaded aprons of the little girls, the glowing colours of blankets and beadwork and colourful mural paintings hanged on her walls.
Thirsty after all this sightseeing, we sat down for a glass of water to chat about her work.
l pulled one of her photograph from the walls.
“Who is Dr Esther Mahlangu?” l asked.
” It’s me,” she joked.
Then she pointed at one photograph to my left and fondly narrated the day the picture was taken. It was during her visit to Japan where she descended from the plane bare footed, incensing the Japanese who were insisting she can not go out barefooted as it was raining.
Mahlangu is the first African artist to be commissioned to paint BMW Art car partnered with brands as Rolls-Royce, British Airways, and her work is also in collections of celebrities like John Legend, Oprah Winfrey and many others.
Her journey is an amazing one that she is passing on the button to the next generation.
“How did this journey begin,” l asked.
” To be born a woman in the Ndebele tribe is very hard because you have to learn many things , l learnt painting and beading at a very tender age, taught by my mother and grandmother. l remember my peers used to laugh at me because l couldn’t paint. l would go on for days trying to straighten my lines then. l spent most time of my teenage time trying to perfect my craft, learning how to paint my own house when l get married was my biggest dream,” Mahlangu said.
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.
“These designs are just my thoughts, expression of my self through art, when l started l did not know one day l will go overseas, it was just for my pride as a woman,” she said.
While chatting , just one glare through the window l knew l did not want to miss an opportunity to the pop over wall paintings just few streets across the road from where l was sitting. Dazzling murals embellish on the roman catholic church walls , and just few metres, the house of the late Fransina Ndimande are patterns that have leapt from the walls to global phenomenal which continues to show the identity of the Ndebele ethnic identity and artwork of Mahlangu.
The style of house painting is typically passed down across generations in this village. A house that is well painted symbolises that there is a good wife and mother who lives therein. The women paint the houses, both inside and outside.
Mahlangu ‘s own work has inspired many in South Africa ,like Sophie (Nonsinki) Mahlangu (not related) who have 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.
“Our arts has involved from generation to generation, l learnt this beading and painting from my mother and seeing Esther’s work and since the l have not looked back.
As the Ndebeles are well known for their outstanding craftsmanship, their decorative homes, and their distinctive and highly colourful mode of dress and ornamentation, Dr Esther Mahlangu said this is the tradition that the new generation should not loose sense off.
At 86,Esther Mahlangu is not planning to put her brush down anytime soon, she has founded a school where young girls and women are taught from local community to paint in the traditional way.
” l am teaching them and l love doing that. This is my way of passing the knowledge to next generations to come,” she said.
Professor Lucky Mhlangu who is also a Ndebele custodian said
“Every December in the Ndebele culture young boys are taken to the mountains to teach them how to preserve our culture. This is how our fathers used to teach us and we are teaching our children too.
Young maidens also have time to be schooled in their culture.
Twenty-five-old Nkosazana (Princess in isindebele) Mbali Mahlangu from the Nzunza royal family has embraced legacy their mothers are leaving behind for them.
” l love my culture because there are so many areas to it, its like a mirror you can see it from all different angles. l love the fact that through out the ages we have been able to keep the level of integrity of our culture. l have lived in different places of South Africa and as Ndebele people we have remained to true to our culture” she said.
“As a young princess l am ready to take over the reigns from our mothers and continue to preserve what we have and keep our heritage solid” She continued.
Although the origins of the Ndebele people are shrouded in mystery, identified as one of the Nguni tribes that represent nearly two thirds of South Africa population, its people has no intention of slowing down, helping to preserve and promote their culture around the world.