FNB Art Joburg
Sandton Convention
Centre, Johannesburg,
South Africa​

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Voice, Agency and a Pioneering Spirit

With Esther Mahlangu

“I would continue to paint on the house when they [ family]  left for a break. When they came back, they would say: ‘What have you done, child? Never do that again!’ After that, I started drawing on the back of the house, and slowly my drawings got better and better until they finally asked me to come back to the front of the house. Then I knew I was good at painting.”

“Then I Knew I Was Good at Painting”: Esther Mahlangu, A Retrospective —curated by Nontobeko Ntombela and staged at Iziko National Gallery until August 2024 offers a profound exploration of Esther Mahlangu’s voice, agency, and pioneering spirit. Spanning over 50 years of Mahlangu’s career, the exhibition showcases her remarkable journey from traditional isiNdebele mural painting to global contemporary art acclaim — a significant contribution to the discourse on African and women artists in the art historical canon. 

Her artistic journey resonates deeply with the themes and discourses explored in critical writings on African and Black art, embodying the spirit of resilience reflected on by W.E.B. Du Bois in “The Souls of Black Folk,” highlighting the rich cultural heritage and artistic ingenuity of African peoples.

Known and celebrated for her ability to transcend the boundaries of traditional Ndebele art and engage with modern and contemporary art practices, Mahlangu paints and crafts geometric forms and bold colours, creating compositions that are not only visually captivating but also carry deep emotional and imaginative resonance. Her work challenges the Eurocentric notions of abstraction, offering a unique perspective rooted in her cultural heritage. For her, artmaking is not just about aesthetics but also about storytelling, memory, and cultural identity. 

“Painting has always been a part of me. I cannot separate it from myself, and neither would I want to. I look forward to sharing my practice and long and colourful story with you on my upcoming Retrospective Exhibition.” – Dr Mahlangu

Through the use of traditional Ndebele motifs in abstract contexts, Mahlangu challenges the notion of what constitutes “traditional” art and expands the possibilities of abstraction as a form of cultural expression. Since the early 90s, she has engaged with popular culture and modern-day objects, such as the BMW Art Car, further highlighting her innovative approach to artmaking. By incorporating these elements into her practice, she not only extends the reach of her work but also opens up a dialogue on the intersections of art, culture, and society. The inclusion of the BMW car in the exhibition becomes a significant marker of the outer edges of the white cube, challenging the traditional boundaries of the art space.

Mahlangu’s retrospective invites a reconsideration of the role of women in art history and the concept of women’s work. Encompassing a wide range of mediums, including painting, weaving, beadwork, and ceramics, her practice is highlighted through the diversity and complexity of her artistic vision. She expands the possibilities of what can be considered art, challenging established hierarchies and narratives.

“Then I Knew I Was Good at Painting” is not only a celebration of Esther Mahlangu’s extraordinary career but also a significant contribution to the discourse on African art. She has left an indelible mark on the art world and continues to inspire generations of artists and art enthusiasts alike.

Mahlangu’s artistic journey has been punctuated by a series of significant group exhibitions that showcase her exceptional talent and cultural impact. Her participation in landmark events such as “Les Magiciens de la Terre” at the Grande Halle de la Villette in Paris in 1989 and “Out of Africa” at the Saatchi Gallery in London in 1992 underscore her global influence. Mahlangu’s work has also been featured in prestigious exhibitions like “Africa Hoy” at the Centro Atlántico de Arte Moderno in Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, Spain, in 1991, and “Africus, 1st Johannesburg Biennale” in 1995, which further solidified her reputation as a leading figure in contemporary African art. Her solo exhibitions have provided deeper insights into her artistic vision and cultural heritage. Notable showcases include “Esther Mahlangu, South African Muralist: The BMW Art Car and Related Works” at the National Museum of Woman in the Arts in Washington D.C. in 1994, and “Esther Mahlangu 80” at the UCT Irma Stern Museum in Cape Town in 2015. These exhibitions not only celebrate Mahlangu’s artistic prowess but also highlight her role as a cultural ambassador for South Africa. In addition to her exhibitions, Mahlangu’s prolific career has been marked by numerous awards and accolades. Her contributions to the arts have been recognized with prestigious honours such as the Order of Ikhamanga (Silver) from the Government of South Africa in 2006 and the Officier de L’Ordre Arts et Lettres from the French Embassy in Pretoria in 2019, acknowledging her dedication to preserving and promoting South African heritage through her art.

Mahlangu’s collaborations and special projects further illustrate her innovative approach to art. From designing the poster for The South African Society for Surgery of the Hand Congress in Cape Town in 2003 to collaborating with BMW on the BMW 7 Series Individual in 2016, Mahlangu’s work transcends traditional boundaries, merging art with various disciplines and industries. Her work is housed in esteemed collections around the world, including the Meulensteen Art Museum in Bratislava, Slovakia, and the Musée du Quai Branly – Jacques Chirac in Paris, France.

Friday, 8th September

Collection tour of Anglo American

144 Oxford Rd, Rosebank

8 September 2023

Event details

The Anglo American art and object collection is a combination of art collected over several decades through four different companies: Anglo American, de Beers Group, Anglo American Platinum and Kumba Iron Ore.

The collection comprises of 3600 works, with around 1000 pieces in the collection on display at the newly commissioned Rosebank offices. Although vast, the collection experienced an acquisition hiatus from the early 2000s until 2021 creating a significant gap in the collection’s representation of contemporary art. The collection now has a dedicated curator, Megan Scott, tasked with its cataloguing and digitisation, opening an exciting new chapter which will see the gradual procurement of significant works that reflect our contemporary South African and African art world.

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