Durban Tourism Indaba 2011 showcased Esther Mahlangu

It was with great anticipation that our team set off for the Durban Tourism Indaba, not quite knowing what to expect as it was the first year that Discover South Africa participated. The stand was completed and we were ready for all the visitors, or so we thought.  The four days passed as if in a dream and before we knew it, the Indaba had come to an end. Apart from the fact that Discover South Africa and its products were received with enthusiasm by many establishments, we had the opportunity of meeting wonderful, interesting people. In this instance I would like to share two people in particular which stood out. The lady Esther Mahlangu and Sophie Mahlangu who attended the Indaba from Mpumalanga district.

My first thought as I saw these two stately Ndebele Ladies approach our stand was “how incredibly beautiful they looked in their traditional dress”.  It has always been sad to me that western civilisation was the cause for some African cultures to lose part of their heritage and conform to that which the western world requires. These two ladies were living examples of a culture that stayed true to their roots.

Sophie Mahlangu is a relative of Esther Mahlangu and member of the National Arts Council of South Africa where she exhibits as a Muralist and where some of her beautiful beaded artworks are displayed. She is an incredible artist with the same passion as Ma Esther Mahlangu.  Esther on the other hand is a world renowned artist, whose career as an Ndebele Artist I had followed since she became known for her commissioning by BMW to paint the eleventh BMW Art Car in 1991. Quite recently, in a program called “A Country Imagined” Johnny Clegg himself World renowned through “Juluka” honoured this lady through an interview showcasing her and some of her works.

I was incredibly excited, honoured and quite overwhelmed at the opportunity of receiving then at our stand and for the privilege of visiting them thereafter.  For those of you who know  Esther Mahlangu the Artist, or have had the honour in meeting her, she is well and still working on her art while also busy with her guesthouse at the age of 75 years.  A remarkable icon and an inspiration to all who meet her. The readers who do not know her, I would like to invite you to travel this journey of discovery with me so that you too may experience this talented, diverse, yet humble lady….Esther Maglangu.

Esther Nikwambi Mahlangu was born in 1935 on a farm near Middelburg in Mpumalanga Province.  She grew up like most of the Ndebele women doing traditional wall painting and beadwork, which she learned from her mother and grandmother. They painted with fingers since brushes were not available at the time.  In 1986 researchers from Paris travelled the world to document traditional art, cultures and homesteads and so came to Weltevrede, Kwamhlanga. They photographed Esther’s eye-catching house with its exterior decorations while she was at work at Botshabelo Ndebele Museum near Middelburg. When the researchers visited the museum and showed Esther the photographs, she confirmed that the house was indeed her house which she had decorated. This lead to an invitation for Esther to travel to France, this must have been daunting as she had never travelled beyond South African borders.  However, Esther bravely took all the new and frightening experiences in her stride. As I followed her career I was assured of one aspect which stood out above all and that was her love and passion for her people, her one true goal through all she had achieved, was to make sure that the Ndebele people and their art never die out. In her work, Esther has stayed true to her tradition and paintings represent every-day objects in the abstract, drawing freehand without prior measurement or sketches.  There is always movement and passion in her work and I can showcase but a few of the achievements, however invite you to read up on her or go and visit her at her guesthouse in Mpumalanga.

In Paris, Esther decorated a house in traditional Ndebele fashion, and also decorated the wall at the local museum in Angoul, France. This was done under media coverage and the world watched and took note of this incredible Ndebele artist. That was the gateway to her career an since then she had many more opportunities to showcase her art.

In 1991 Esther Mahlangu was invited to paint a prototype of the new BMW 525i model. Esther’s car which was the eleventh in the Art Car Collection, was the first car to be decorated by a Ndebele woman artist. It was an honour that a black woman artist from a small town in the South African community had been included in a prestigious international artistic line-up, placing BMW in the spotlight of a cross-cultural, out-of-Africa art promotion. Esther Mahlangu’s BMW has never and will never be subjected to driving on the road, but will exist exclusively as a work of art.   I recall, Johan Walker, in his 1990 publication Art in the Age of Mass Media, wrote;

…the mass produced item (the BMW car) of an industrial designer has been made into a unique work of art. What was already a status symbol was given the status of Art.

Esther was then commissioned to decorate the tailfin for a British Airways Boeing and a 24 x 6, 6 meter mural for the New Identities exhibition in the Bochum Museum, in Germany. She was also commissioned to do five mural paintings, each 1.21 m x 2.59 meters, for the refurbished section of Virgin Atlantic’s flagship music store on Times Square in New York.

Esther has received numerous awards by international instances, latest being awarded by Nelson Mandela “The Order of Ikhamanga in Silver” for Excellent contribution to the development of the indigenous Ndebele Arts.  However what impressed me the most about this lady was no matter how wide her art history and no matter how prestigious the rewards she received through her work, she remains incredibly humble.

Ma Esther Mahlangu, we at Discover South Africa are proud to be associated with you, we respect and salute you for the person you are, it was indeed an honour meeting you.

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