Esther Mahlangu

1935 | Middelburg, South Africa

South African painter.

Esther Mahlangu’s creations sit within the traditional mural painting of the South African Ndebele people, from which she originates. Introduced to the technique and stylistic codes of domestic wall decoration as part of initiation rites by their mothers and grandmothers, the young women of this culture inherit the art of making pigments, preparing the wall on which the paint will be applied, composing an original decoration that draws from the repertoire of traditional geometric figures while inventing new motifs.  Until the 1940s the Ndebele used mostly natural pigments produced from charcoal, clay and red earth, which the women went to look for several kilometres away. These brightly coloured pigments were fixed to the walls in large flat areas in order to take the form of abstract motifs, most often distributed symmetrically and rhythmically. This practice was repeated every winter during the dry season and erased every rainy season.

After the region’s growing industrialisation and the involvement of women in the urban markets of Pretoria and Johannesburg, figurative motifs – such as cars, aeroplanes and electric lightbulbs – were introduced to the inventory of forms. Created in a polygamist context in which the competition between women is severe, these paintings are meant to protect the home from evil spirits and distinguish women according to their level of expertise. While E. Mahlangu remains faithful to this tradition, she has also emancipated herself from it since the exhibition Magiciens de la terre, which she was invited to participate in at the Centre Pompidou in Paris in 1989. On this occasion she installed a replica of her house that she covered with frescoes. From a production limited to the domestic sphere, her painting has extended to the sphere of the “African” art market. Today she also paints on canvas with acrylic while introducing new stylistic motifs. Settled in Mabhoko in Mpumalanga, she opened a school for young girls where she transmits her art while continuing to participate in exhibitions around the world.

Maureen Murphy

Translated from the French by Katia Porro.

From the Dictionnaire universel des créatrices
© 2013 Des femmes – Antoinette Fouque
© Archives of Women Artists, Research and Exhibitions
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