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South African artist makes traditional work boldly modern

Andrew Meldrum

SIYABUSWA (AP) – Bold blue, yellow, and pink triangles play off each other in a zigzag pattern marching down the side of a rural home in South Africa’s northern Mpumalanga province.

Shapes of ziggurats, diamonds and arrows dance around the structure in clashing yet harmonious colours, instantly recognisable as the work of South African artist Esther Mahlangu.

Excelling at the traditional craft of painting huts and buildings in lively geometric designs, Mahlangu has taken the generations-old Ndebele craft and won it an acclaimed place in the world of contemporary abstract art.

No longer confined to rural South Africa, Mahlangu’s graphic art has enlivened jumbo jets, BMW automobiles and large-scale public installations.

The same startling flair is evident in her dress, as Mahlangu wears traditional necklaces, blankets, beads and fabrics, at home in rural South Africa while making a statement at sophisticated art galleries.

Most arresting is the spark in her eyes when she discusses her mission of keeping alive the culture of South Africa’s Ndebele people.

Artist Esther Mahlangu with a troupe of dancers in Siyabuswa, South Africa. PHOTO: AP

“My work is a celebration of my culture, the Ndebele culture, and it makes me proud to see it taken around the world. People can see it in Africa, in Europe, in America, and they can say it is beautiful. It is Ndebele,” Mahlangu said recently, speaking in the Ndebele language through an interpreter while sitting by an evening fire at her homestead.

“We must teach our young people where they come from, what culture they come from.

They must be proud of their culture and pass it on to their children and grandchildren. That’s what we must do.”

South Africa’s Ndebele people, one of several ethnic groups of the country’s 60 million people, largely live in northeastern parts of South Africa and are known for their distinctive decorations and dress. Neighbouring Zimbabwe has a separate Ndebele population that migrated north a few hundred years ago.

Mahlangu became known in South Africa as one of the most talented and accomplished Ndebele artists. Her designs won international attention and in 1991 she was commissioned by BMW to decorate a car to be part of its collection of vehicles painted by artists including Andy Warhol, David Hockney and Frank Stella.

Her work was increasingly exhibited internationally and in 1997 British Airways commissioned her to create a design for one of its Boeing 747 jets. Mahlangu was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Johannesburg in 2018.

Mahlangu’s international success has allowed her to build a spacious compound of several buildings including a gallery and guesthouse – all decorated with her designs. Although she is usually looked after by family, an intruder broke into her home earlier this year, attempted to strangle her and stole some possessions. A suspect has been arrested and Mahlangu is still recovering from the trauma, said family members.

Now frail in her mid-80s, Mahlangu nonetheless responded enthusiastically to a troupe of athletic Ndebele dancers who visited her home recently and she joined them for a brief, spirited shuffle.

Although Mahlangu is no longer painting, she champions Ndebele culture from her home.

“What’s notable about mam’ Esther’s work is most definitely the colours and the way in which she’s able to symmetrically make the colours come alive and not make it feel like… an assault on one’s eyes,” said curator Ruzy Rusike at the Melrose Gallery in Johannesburg, which represents Mahlangu.

“I think that goes back into her own understanding of spiritually what colours mean when they see (them), but also what contemporary colours mean now,” said Rusike.