Ambassador of France to South Africa Christophe Farnaud bestowed on Dr Mahlangu the award of Officier de L'Ordre Arts et Lettres (Officer of the Order of Arts and Letters). Picture: Jacques Naude/African News Agency(ANA)

Pretoria - The French embassy in Pretoria celebrated France’s national day in Pretoria on Friday by honouring renowned South African Ndebele artist Dr Esther Mahlangu, whose Ndebele designs have been admired worldwide.

Ambassador of France to South Africa Christophe Farnaud bestowed on Dr Mahlangu the award of Officier de L'Ordre Arts et Lettres (Officer of the Order of Arts and Letters) on behalf of the French minister of culture during the celebrations at the embassy.

“Bonjour (hello) and merci beaucoup (thank you so much). I went to France and they really respected my work. They invited me to paint a house like mine and then they sent me around the world to show my work,” Mahlangu told the packed reception of diplomats, business people and French expats.

Mahlangu is among the first artists to put Ndebele art on canvas and uses primary colours. She is well known for painting with a chicken feather.

The Order of Arts and Letters was established in France in 1957 and is awarded by the French ministry of culture in recognition of significant contributions to the enrichment of arts and literature in France and abroad.

Mahlangu learned traditional Ndebele wall-painting and beadwork from her mother and grandmother as a child. In 1986, while she was working at an Ndebele cultural village in Middelburg, Mpumalanga, the artworks she created on her house were noted by French researchers from Paris. She was invited to create murals for an exhibition of international contemporary art in France and, upon her return in 1990, she began to paint murals at public venues in South Africa, soon followed by locations in Europe and the US.

At 83, Mahlangu still travels regularly, participating in exhibitions at many of the world’s most respected museums and national galleries and is regularly invited to collaborate with celebrities and popular global brands. She is one of South Africa’s most globally acclaimed artists and is considered by many to be a national treasure.

Other South African citizens who have been awarded the order include Johnny Clegg (1991), William Kentridge (2013), Gregory Maqoma (2017) and Zanele Muholi (2017).

The Bastille Day celebration was also the occasion to bid farewell to ambassador Farnaud as he has completed his posting to South Africa. A seasoned diplomat, Farnaud was a particularly active and enthusiastic ambassador who made great strides in strengthening relations between France and South Africa.

“This is an extraordinary country and I will miss South Africa. I wish South Africa all the best in this new, very rich phase,” Farnaud said. “South Africa and France share a commitment to multilateralism and we need more collective action.”

Farnaud also stressed the robust investment by French companies in South Africa, saying that 60 000 jobs in South Africa are dependent on French companies.

Bastille Day marks a turning point in the French Revolution, with the storming of the ancient royal fortress in 1789.

Pretoria News