Esther Mahlangu celebrates 85th birthday with landmark exhibition
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Dr Esther Mahlangu has had a Rolls-Royce named after her, exhibited in museums around the world, collaborated with Nelson Mandela and John Legend, and the likes of Oprah Winfrey, Alicia Keys, Will Smith, Usher, Black Coffee and Trevor Noah all own her work.
Many of these celebrities continue to make pilgrimages to her Mpumalanga homestead to pay respects to our national treasure and global icon.
Yet this famous South African artist is just hitting her stride in her 85th year by achieving yet another milestone.
She will be celebrating her birthday month by launching the largest solo exhibition she has produced on 19 November.
The landmark exhibition, curated by Ruzy Rusike, is fittingly titled ‘Esther Mahlangu 85’, and will be presented online and at The Melrose Gallery in Johannesburg until 20 December.
It will showcase a body of artworks created over the last three years including the bold, geometric paintings for which she has become so globally acclaimed and an exciting new series of sculptures.
Her distinctive contemporary interpretation of Ndebele patterns have been applied to a host of objects from war helmets, caravans and motorbikes to mannequins and planes.
People are most familiar with her collaboration with BMW, resulting in these German luxury vehicles being treated to an African twist, with characteristic black lines and angular shapes in vivid colours.
Most recently Mahlangu collaborated with Rolls-Royce on their Phantom model, transforming the vehicle into one they dubbed ‘The Mahlangu’.
This is what Mam Esther, as she is fondly known, is most famous for doing; insinuating Ndebele cultural and visual traditions into high art circles and popular culture.
Her immaculate paintings and sculptures, pulsating with bright colours popping against black borders and patterns have been exhibited at the Museum of Arts and Design, New York, The British Museum, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao, the National Museum of African Art at The Smithsonian Institution and, of course, famously at the Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, when she made her debut in Europe in the late eighties.
Many experts are of the opinion that no African contemporary art collection can be considered complete without one of Dr Mahlangu’s artworks.
She has spent much of her eighty-five years making art, driven by an insatiable compulsion to “pass on our tradition from generation to generation. So they can see where Ndebele comes from.”
This is an objective she continues to pursue.
“Whilst I have worked with many respected museums, curators, art fairs, galleries and global brands I have had very few solo exhibitions in South Africa.
“It is exciting for me to be launching one of my largest solos ever at the age of 85 in South Africa so that my own people can experience and enjoy these paintings and realise their value,” she said.
A traditionalist at heart, she lives her ethos, wearing brass rings or “dzilla” and painting with a feather paintbrush.
She is however a global citizen who continues to spend extensive time working in many of the world’s largest cities and has no intention of hanging it up any time soon.
“I love art. It is part of me and I can’t separate it from who I am.
“Many people ask me when I am going to retire. But making art is not a job to me, it is a major part of who I am and I will continue to paint as long as I am able,” she said.
Dr Mahlangu’s birthday month is extremely busy as she unveils; two 16-metre paintings at the Southgate Mall and following the opening of “Esther Mahlangu 85” at The Melrose Gallery, she will launch a range of handbags with collaborator Carol Bouwer.
A touring retrospective of her art will also kick off in 2023.