A conversation with octogenarian South African artist Esther Mahlangu, a traditional Ndebele woman gone global.


Photography by Travys Owen
Words by Carolin Würfel
Production by Gabrielle Kannemeyer

Esther, you are known not only for your colourful paintings, but also for your incredible wardrobe.
What are you wearing today?

I am always in my traditional clothes, I never wear ‘Western clothing’, although I do have different traditional outfits for different occasions. When I’m at home working I wear a thinner blanket around my shoulders and a simpler beaded apron, and I like walking barefoot as it keeps me connected to the earth.


You just turned 80 (Happy Birthday!)—a long, eventful life lies behind you, what are your thoughts looking back?

Although the early part of my life was difficult as my husband died very early, and I also lost all three of my sons, my life took a huge turn with my first visit to Paris [in 1989] to take part in the Magiciens de la Terre exhibition. I never imagined that this single event would catapult me into this wonderful life of travel, art and meeting people, allowing me to take my art to people all over the world to share my culture and tradition. I am happy with what I have achieved and all the places that I have visited. There are still many things to do and many places I want to see so for me it is about looking forward and never looking back.

Can you explain the Ndebele artistic practice briefly?

A long time ago the Ndebele people used to decorate their mud–walled houses with symbols they created by hand. These symbols were used as a means of communication between them. Over time, the colours and shapes became a key aspect in the overall design. What was once a finger–painted monochromatic creation changed after 1945 when the Ndebele were introduced to acrylic paints and vivid colours. Today many of the Ndebele designs have a rich black outline and a vivid colour inside. There are five main colours represented in today’s paintings: Red, yellow, blue, green, and sometimes pink although I have added more colours to my palette. The patterns, geometry and symmetry are the most important aspects of Ndebele painting. Painting is always done by women, freehand, without prior layouts, although the designs are planned beforehand, but I see my designs in my head.


You just did a collaboration with Swedish sneaker label Eytys — what was your approach for the design?

I have worked with many big companies that have used my designs on their products and I always approach each of these projects in my own way. When I did the BMW car I saw the car and then saw in my head how I would paint it. When Eytys told me they wanted to make some shoes I didn’t know how they wanted to incorporate my designs and so they chose a design from a painting that I did for my 80th birthday solo exhibition with 34FineArt at the UCT Irma Stern Museum in Cape Town, South Africa. I am very happy with the result.

You grew up amongst many strong and powerful women. Would you call yourself a feminist?

“Feminist” is a Western term that I, as a traditional woman, am not familiar with. I believe that women are as strong as men and that they can achieve the same through hard work. There should be no difference between men and women and I have seen that male and female artists do the same thing so it is sad that men were not allowed to do painting in my culture, though now at my school I do have boys painting as well.


Does art really have to have a meaning? What do you think?

When the Ndebele painting started it had a very strong meaning as it was a secret language and a way of communicating between the Ndebele people who could not read or write. Then when I was exposed to the international art world I realized that people were making art because they love making it and that is what I always wanted to do. If people see something in your art and it tells a story to them it is good, but it should not always be the case.

What kind of advice would you give young artists?

Looking at my circumstances, where I came from—I never went to school and never learned to read or write—I never had formal art training except in the traditional way but I always knew that I loved painting even from very early on. You must never make excuses for your shortcomings. You must build on your weaknesses to create your strengths. You are the master of your destiny and nobody but yourself is to blame if you don’t succeed in anything.

What’s coming up next?

I am off to New Mexico early in 2016. I have received many other invitations … I will wait for the tickets to arrive and then I will once again put my blanket around my shoulders and go wherever they want me. I will go, as that is what makes Esther happy!


This interview was first published in HONORE #1