Art and Culture (Mpumalanga)
Esther Nikwambi Mahlangu
Esther Nikwambi Mahlangu was born on 11 November 1935 in Middelburg, Mpumalanga, South Africa, and belongs to the South Ndebele people. Mahlangu began painting at 10 years of age, and was taught the skill of mural painting by her mother and grandmother,following a tradition of her native South Ndebele people for females to paint the exterior of houses. It is in this cultural tradition where Mahlangu began her artistic journey.
Mahlangu follows a local tradition through which this particular type of painting technique is handed down in the family, communicated, learned and transmitted only by women (in the past). These paintings are closely connected with the ancient tradition of decorating the houses on the occasion of the rite of passage for boys. Between 18 and 20 years of age, the youth of the tribe go to “a school of circumcision”, the ritual that confirm their passage to adulthood. To celebrate this event the women completely repaint the inside and the outside of their houses with a preparation of cow dung and natural pigments. Brightly coloured acrylic paints are also applied in designs outlined by black lines. Although seemingly simple, the geometric abstraction that is revealed by these paintings is underscored by the constant repetition and symmetry of such simple shapes that make the whole work quite complex.
The art of Esther Mahlangu highlights the tension between local and global, between the anchor and detachment. Despite continuing to use the same “artistic vocabulary” closely tied to her traditions, Mahlangu has applied the designs to various objects including canvas, sculpture, ceramics, automobiles and airplanes. She has also collaborated with various brands like BMW, Fiat, EYTYS, Melissa’s, Beleverde and the British Museum.