Nene Mahlangu: Between reality and the ethereal


By Mamelodi Marakalala

When you see the name Nene Mahlangu, it is often in relation to art galleries exhibiting her paintings, a brand collaboration, or the curation of programmes that have a significant impact on the industry. This name was once listed in the files of the University of Pretoria’s Medical Sciences department before moving across into the visual arts, design, and the overall creative scene.

Mahlangu is a dynamic visual artist whose talents stretch far and wide into the scientific, strategic, artistic, and design-inclined. In her artistic practice, she has unified these schools of thought to forge a dynamic career. “I see the strategy, design, and art pillars as threads of string that weave in and out of each other. I’m the type of person who needs a sense of direction before embarking on any project. Strategy helps me to see what I should make and where what I make should live. How can it be presented to the world in a meaningful way? There are countless theories in the world of design that have made me value good composition; and I know that if I couple that with the desire to make something meaningful, it becomes easier to make art,” Mahlangu explains.

Nene Mahlangu is the youngest woman to have designed two R2 coins for the South African Mint’s SA25 Campaign commemorating 25 years of democracy.

In 2019, South Africa celebrated twenty-five years of democracy. One of the country’s marks for this national milestone was the “Celebrating South Africa” Coin Collection, a partnership between the South African Mint and the South African Reserve Bank. For the SA25 – Celebrating South Africa campaign, Mahlangu was amongst five artists and designers commissioned to create that year’s R2 and R5 circulation coins. She became one of the first three women to be part of this initiative and the youngest South African to design two R2 coins.

Mahlangu’s Children’s Rights coin features the faces of four children looking out at the horizon, emphasising that every child has the potential for a bright future – as long as their essential rights are fulfilled. Her Right to Education coin featured a graduation cap, an open book, and a wooden cube that toddlers play with, signifying the stages and processes of education.

Nene Mahlangu was commissioned to create art for one of the biggest musicians in South Africa, DJ and producer Black Coffee.

Mahlangu became the lead visual artist for Black Coffee’s Hï Ibiza Summer Residency Programme in 2022. She had created 23 artworks to surround the entire event. She was inspired by the island of Ibiza in her creations and imagined that they would reflect the people one would find there and the people attracted to the Grammy Award winner’s music shows. She was influenced by the cultural subgenres of escapism, fashion, and music, reminding people of the power of music and entertainment in their lives. The works were extravagant and bold, accentuating the magnitude of the musical act and demonstrating Black artistic excellence.

Nene Mahlangu was the curator of the Design Indaba Emerging Creatives 2023 and continues using knowledge and experience in the arts to help others.

In October 2022, Mahlangu was announced as curator of the 2023 iteration of the Design Indaba Emerging Creatives programme. Once an emerging creative herself, and passionate about transferring the skills and knowledge she has gained throughout the years, Mahlangu was an ideal pick to engage in developing and nurturing the next generation of South African artists. Twenty young creatives, out of over 340 entrants, were chosen for the programme. This mentorship included developing their creative practices as sustainable businesses, honing their artistry, as well as teaching them how to brand their art and artistic image and how to cement their place in the art world.

Mahlangu’s desire to help other creatives does not end there. She created a course to educate further emerging and interested artists on pricing their art and building their legacy as artists. “When I created the course, I saw the disadvantages that many self-taught and often university-bred artists had when entering the art market,” Mahlangu says. “Luckily, I had experience in sales, negotiating, and marketing. So making a course that broke down how to effectively price artwork, felt like the right thing to do. Those who were interested in that information were more than happy to go through the 16 lectures.”

When her schedule allows, Mahlangu makes space to assist emerging artists who are interested in picking her brain, too. In April, she will be shedding more light on her artistic practice and creative entrepreneurship learnings for a discussion hosted by IQOQO at First Thursdays at the Silo District, sponsored by American Express. The discussion will take place at the Cape Town Creative Academy and is an extension of her relationship with American Express, as one of five winners in the 2023 Amex ZA Graphic Arts Challenge.

Nene Mahlangu has exhibited her work at prestigious galleries in South Africa and many parts of the world, including Paris and Lausanne.

Between the 17th and 27th of November 2022, a curatorial team comprising Nomaza Nongqunga-Coupez, Rodrigue Naucelles, and Emmanuel de Boisset curated an exhibition called ECLIPSE – featuring the works of Mhlangu alongside Lulama ‘Wolf’ Mlambo. Mahlangu’s acrylic paintings from this show are a portrayal of her ethereal wonderland. She depicts masculine and feminine figures whose faces are covered by her iconic signature black and bold bowl hat, placed in a jungle daytime. The images are framed by large green leaves and wildflowers, appearing to be lit by an orange fire.

In one of the paintings, a woman in a black-and-white heavy mink coat points forward, smirking. In another, a man dressed in a leather fit and a t-shirt with the word “love” in red, sits casually. In each of these paintings, a figure is fashioned and posed. The body of work explores “the seven deadly sins” in the context of “who [people] are when no one is looking.” Their facial expressions, however, are hidden from our view. They leave us entranced in their beauty, demeanour, and a perpetual state of admiring their burning garden.

Mahlangu is becoming particularly known for her body of work celebrating and exploring womanhood, many depicting Black African women wearing extravagant red ballgowns. “I grew up in a very religious house and was very much aware that I have a soul from a very young age,” says Mahlangu. “Leaning deeper into Christianity made me yearn for a feminine perspective of the divine. This is where my lived experiences come in, I create work that represents feminine power, and I desire for my work to eventually represent feminine divine power. Consciousness and creation are feminine energy. In a world where it feels like feminine energy is suppressed, I want to create mindful work that permits viewers to interrogate their internal worlds.”

Embracing Duality (2023) portrays two women in their red dresses, or rather two versions of the same woman, painted in a delicate embrace and half their bodies submerged in water – a symbol of physical, emotional, and spiritual cleansing. The two figures’ eyes are covered in a single black bowl hat and their faces are almost touching. The piece explores the idea of bonding with oneself. This artwork was featured in the Chasing Spirits exhibition at Foreign Agent in Lausanne, Switzerland.

Victorious (2023), which was part of Mahlangu’s mini solo exhibition Ethereastrata at Kalashnikovv Gallery in Johannesburg, depicts a strong Black woman sitting elegantly yet towering over the shadowy solid liquid at her feet. Her red dress is spread like waves in defence of, or in a war for, her. She holds a long wooden staff – a symbol of assertion, of strength. The show was a celebration of Black feminity and reclamation of Black feminine presence in “spaces that are rightfully theirs” and “that have been traditionally denied”.

Mahlangu notes that, “Red is a colour that encourages duality, on one end it’s a colour of passion, life and love, on the other end, it can represent anger, rage and chaos. Finding balance in the chaos is one of the many ways I’ve been able to heal, grow and mature in my life experience.”

The women in this series of paintings, which are also available as NFTs, look stunning. Their stances and the world that Mahlangu has built around them are all too visually defined to be reduced to societal and, typically, dismissive classifications. There is an intricate dance in which Mahlangu confronts the very real human condition of navigating between external presentations of self as per social constructs and internal realisations of the self. Yet, this is set in a dark and shadowy environment which gives this psycho-social phenomenon an ethereality.

The beauty and authenticity of these works especially come from how Mahlangu has been carrying her art practice throughout the years. She is both an artist and entrepreneur who is entirely running the show when it comes to her practice. “Business-wise, whenever I make high-quality work consistently, good opportunities always find their way to me. I also owe this success to my rate of production, as it’s been valuable in opening up so many concurrent opportunities for me. I know that if I took ages to produce work, it would hinder that momentum of luck,” she says.

Mahlangu’s work continues to amaze in the FIGURES (IN)FLUX group exhibition that opened on the 1st of March at Eclectica Contemporary in Cape Town, the upcoming INTRODUCING THE ERA OF NFT 3.0 art event between the 3rd and 5th of April at NFT.NYC in New York, and the solo exhibition opening on the 26th of May (a result of her 2023 Womxn To Watch Award, courtesy of Meta Foundation). Mahlangu is also the cover star of SA CREATIVE’s March Issue.

More information on these current and upcoming shows can be found on her Instagram and website.

Stay tuned to IQOQO for more details on the IQOQO discussion, wherein Nene Mahlangu will be in conversation with other leading creatives and business minds.

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