For the Ndebele people, art is used to express their history and culture. Since the 18th and 19th centuries, as is custom in Ndebele society, women are in charge of decorating the exterior of the home and gates with symmetrical shapes and colours. From grandmothers to mothers to daughters, these traditional house paintings have been passed down from generation to generation.
Original home paintings consisted of natural shades of white, browns, blacks and ochers. As more colours became accessible, 5 main colours are prominently used: red to dark red, yellow to gold, a sky blue, green, and pink. Using unique colour combinations, Ndebele women use their homes to communicate personal prayers, self-identification, values, emotions, and marriage.
Born in 1935 in Middleburg, South Africa, Esther Mahlangu is the iconic gogo (grandma) you need to know. Taught by her mother and grandmother, Esther started mural painting at the age of 10. Although she paints without rulers or measuring tapes, her paintings are perfectly symmetrical. As an internationally recognized artist, Esther uses chicken feathers to paint her masterpieces freehand.
As a custodian of Ndebele traditions, Esther works out of the Botshabelo Historical Village, an open-air museum that preserves the customs and the various art forms traditionally practised by the Ndebele, particularly their women, including beadwork, murals and the embroidering of blankets.
She was the first person to transfer Ndebele mural paintings onto a canvas. While working at the museum in the mid 80s, she connected with a French art dealer, which eventually lead to her first international trip to Paris. Esther's art was shown during the 1989 Magiciens de la Terre exhibition at the Pompidou.
In 1991, Esther was commissioned by BMW to decorate the exterior of BMW's 525i Sedan. Brightly coloured with distinct shapes, she became the first woman to create artwork for the luxurious car brand. 25 years later, Esther collaborated again with BMW to create adorn the interior of the BMW 7 Series, which has been exhibited worldwide.
In 2016, Esther teamed up with singer-songwriter John Legend to promote limited edition Belvedere Vodka (Red) bottles that were decorated with her Ndebele designs. For each bottle sold, 50% of the proceeds went towards the World Fund to combat HIV/AIDS in Africa.
Through her talent, Esther continues to partner with major brands, like Fiat and British Airways, and show at exhibits to spread Ndebele art beyond South Africa. From the North America to Europe to Asia, her signature art continues to take her around the world.
“When looking at a Ndebele mural, people get a smile of amazement on their faces...If people see the bright colors, they are happy. And it makes me happy as well, as I love to paint; it is in my heart and in my blood.” says Esther. She has dedicated her life to promoting Ndebele traditions internationally, in order to preserve her culture. Now in her 80s, this trailblazing great-grandmother continues to teach and pass down the Ndebele painting and beading traditions to the next generation of young girls, as well as boys.
Check out the below playlist of our favourite interviews with legendary Esther Mahlangu: