Dr. Esther Mahlangu’s monumental works immediately summon the viewer to the Melrose Gallery’s booth in the Investec Cape Town Art Fair’s PAST/MODERN section (guest-curated by João Ferreira).
There is something mysteriously compelling about the artist’s geometric symbols, symmetry, and lively palette of colours, animating both the fourpanel 3.6 x 2.4 metre painting, and the multi-panel installation piece on show. Like all of Mahlangu’s work, the motifs are rooted in Ndebele culture, but speak across cultures using the visual language of shape, size, reflection, tension, repetition, colour, and contrast. It is effectively the 84-year-old artist’s mastery of the visual as an expression of meaning that allows her art to transcend the series of binarisms implicit in modernist ideology – such as tradition versus modernity, the local versus the global, or the West versus the rest – leading us instead to a created, holistic, virtual space in which such divisions are meaningless. As the artist herself states, “When I am painting, my heart is very wide. It reaches out to everything and everyone.”
The Ndebele-based universal language draws in spectators regardless of their heritage, urging them to learn more about the artist and her work. It is then we discover that, painting from the age of ten under the tutelage of her mother and grandmother, Dr. Esther Mahlangu has dedicated her life to keeping alive the female tradition of mural painting central to Ndebele identity and culture. The octogenarian effectively teaches the art to both girls and boys in Mabhoko in Mpumalanga Province, South Africa, where she lives and works, in between travelling the world with her art. A pioneer of carrying Ndebele art forward into the future in both Africa and beyond, Mahlangu has expanded the genre exponentially. Being the first artist to have transmitted Ndebele motifs to canvas, the artist’s unique designs have also appeared on various other materials and artefacts, including BMW cars and a British Airways airplane.
“When I am painting, my heart is very wide.”
Mahlangu’s international career reflects the organic globality of her art, featured in private and public collections in Africa, North America, Europe, and East Asia. And while external success certainly crowns her after more than seven decades of art making, it is the inner profundity of Mahlangu’s art, rendered freehand with chicken feather brushes, that constitutes her vital contribution to global culture. With the simplest means, it affirms that art and life can still remain partners in a postmodern world; not only is her art heartwarmingly alive, the dear artist herself, swathed in colourful patterned clothing and jewelry, appears as a manifestation of her art.
It reaches out to everything and everyone.” If Dr. Mahlangu’s painting is grounded in life, it is no less trailblazing. Acutely philosophical, it challenges and dissolves many entrenched false notions, for example, that pattern or handiwork deemed ‘decorative’ are not art, that we need to shed specific identities to be global, or that we must do away with the past to be modern. In fact, by illustrating the geometry of the here and now and its multidimensionality, Dr. Esther Mahlangu’s art highlights the stark difference between the eternal present, born from being fully engaged in what is, and the transient present, instantly ticking away to become the past.
An article by Valerie Behiery
Featured image : Teresa Kutala Firmino, “Buffalo Town Hall 2”, 2019. Mixed media on unstretched canvas, 121 x 102 cm. Courtesy of Everard Read.
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This article was written for The Art Momentum | Cape Town Art Fair Artpaper 2020.
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