“Then I Knew I Was Good At Painting”: Dr Esther Mahlangu’s art practice through the years


The Iziko South African National Gallery presents the retrospective exhibition of iconic visual artist, Dr Esther Mahlangu. Celebrating her phenomenal contributions to the South African arts and culture sector by enriching contemporary mediums with her traditional Ndebele designs and shining the global spotlight on Ndebele culture. The show is titled “Then I Knew I Was Good At Painting”: Esther Mahlangu. A Retrospective, and opens on 18 February until 11 August 2024. 


By Mamelodi Marakalala 


Dr Esther Mahlangu has travelled the world, showcasing her work at art fairs, museums, galleries and painting murals in countless countries. She has collaborated with artists, celebrities, and brands and is beloved for her “bright and bold abstract paintings” based on the traditional Ndebele geometric design style. In every instance,  she dons traditional Ndebele attire – an embodied extension of her people’s artistry. 

A strength of many African artists is the ability to tell the world their stories about the cultural elements that shaped their entire worlds and informed their identities. They invite the global public into the intricate spaces that reflect where they come from and who they are as people of their distinct heritage. Dr Mahlangu is no different; her work has been viewed/engaged with by both academic and mainstream media as coming from a remarkable mind and incredible skill but is also so much bigger than her individualised self. 

Scholar Sifiso Ndlovu once wrote, “One should hasten to note that the visibility of Ndebele paintings in public spaces expresses how Ndebele culture is situated within a broader South Africanness in ways that increasingly reflect the articulation of Ndebele identity and national belonging in mutually constitutive ways.” This statement stands as a testament to the honour, perhaps a burden as well, that an African artist carries diving into their inclinations of making. The narrative around their art practice is, more often than not, about how we learn about their nation and heritage from their art. 

This retrospective exhibition pulled its roots from the following words, “I would continue to paint on the house when they left for a break. When they came back they would say: ‘What have you done child? Never do that again!’ After that, I started drawing on the back of the house, and slowly my drawings got better and better until they finally asked me to come back to the front of the house. Then I knew I was good at painting.” This is a recollection from when she was young and forming an interest in the house painting work of her mother, grandmother, and elders. 

Moving from the back of the house to the front and then rising to international acclaim, Dr Mahlangu has mostly been hailed as a pioneer in the preservation and popularisation of her Ndebele heritage. In the same breath, we also need to crown her for the remarkable talent and limitless imagination she possesses, for what her career became and her capacity to take it as far as she has. “Mahlangu’s journey is a testament to passion, innovation, and resilience,” says Nontobeko Ntombela, the exhibition curator. According to Ntombela, this exhibition is a celebration of Dr Mahlangu’s “unique approach to art, which intersects African cultures with modernity and the contemporary” as well as her “voice, agency, and pioneering spirit, symbolising her self-enunciation, self-determination, and creativity.”  



“Few articles deal with Dr Mahlangu’s valuable contribution to contemporary art over seven decades. She is one of few visual artists who has successfully been able to bridge the space between the ‘traditional’ and ‘contemporary’. She has been a disruptor and an innovator who has been open to extensive travel, collaborations, and experimenting on numerous mediums – most recently an AI project with BMW that was unveiled at Art Basel Switzerland and then at Frieze Seoul and Contemporary Istanbul,” says Craig Mark, exhibition project manager and The Melrose Gallery director. 

Dr Mahlangu’s  30-year-long collaborative relationship with the BMW Group started in 1991 when she became the first African and first woman to contribute to their Art Cars initiative, which resulted in the BMW 525i transforming into a canvas, painted in Ndebele design. Dr Esther Mahlangu is among great artists such as Andy Warhol and Ken Done, to have worked with BMW in this way.  The car is now amongst over 150 of the artworks that span her long career, at Iziko.

Automobile technology continued its dance with African traditional design when Dr Esther Mahlangu worked on the interior of a BMW 7 Series, which was exhibited at the Frieze London Art Fair in 2016 and auctioned for charity. Rolls-Royce commissioned her to create art for the “Gallery” space inside a Phantom, now called The Mahlangu Phantom, in 2020. 


BMW Art Cars


Calls such as these, which further elevate the status of Ndebele patterns, give us insight into the magnitude of Dr Mahlangu’s art practice. She has also set a barometer for future visual artists, inspiring them to think innovatively about what an art practice can become and showing them a grand horizon to aspire towards. 

Beyond her commercial collaborations, Dr Mahlangu has made great contributions to the visual arts industry by bringing more eyes to South Africa’s cultural landscape. She was part of a multitude of group exhibitions all over the world, including Les Magiciens de la Terre (1989), or Magicians of the Earth, at Grande Halle de la Villette in Paris, New Identities: Contemporary Art from South Africa (2004) at Kunstmuseum Bochum in Germany, and the most recent Icons of Contemporary Art (2023) at the Bellagio Fine Art Gallery in Las Vegas, USA. 

Dr Mahalngu’s long list of solo exhibitions includes Esther Mahlangu and the Art of the Ndebele (1997), in York College, Pennsylvania, Esther Mahlangu – La Regina d’Africa (2010), or The Queen of Africa at various galleries in Italy, Timeless – Between Matter and Spirit (2019) by The Melrose Gallery in Bloemfontein and the Investec Cape Town Art Fair. and Where Two Rivers Meet (2023), Almine Rech’s London and Paris galleries. 

The scale of her art practice has brought on prestigious awards. Dr Mahlangu won the Mpumalanga Arts and Culture Award in 1999, the Pan African Broadcasting, Heritage and Achievement Award (PABHA) of Nigeria in 2001, the Government of South Africa’s Order of Ikhamanga (Silver) in 2006, as well as the French Embassy’s Officer of the Order of Arts and Letters in 2019. Not to mention she was inducted to the Gallery of Legends and took home the METRO FM Lifetime Achievement Award in 2023. 



Craig Mark continues, “Very few South African artists have had the opportunity to present a retrospective in major international museums. The global tour of this exhibition sends an important message and will hopefully lead to opportunities for other South African artists to be given access to these museum spaces which they have so long been denied. Even more so considering that Dr Mahlangu is a Black South African woman who was born in 1935.”

While a retrospective is specifically about looking at the progress and accomplishments of an artist since the very start of their career, this exhibition additionally invites us to see Dr Mahlangu’s artworks as moments wherein her artistic voice was so loud it echoed through the oceans that separate our continents, as moments in which she stood back in contemplation, after completing a painting, and was proud. 

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