Celebrating the custodian of Ndebele culture – Heritage icon, Esther Mahlangu

2017-09-25 10:35

Johannesburg – Although she does not understand the many languages spoken at the various countries she has travelled to, Esther Mahlangu manages to bring people together using the one language she loves the most - her art.

“Through my art I have seen the world. People from all over the world come to KwaNdebele to learn about my culture.”

The years may have gone by but the daughter of the South African soil is going strong.

Mahlangu, who was recently honored with a mural in New York, has travelled the world, rubbed shoulders with the who’s who in Hollywood and yet for all her astuteness, she remains humble.

When News24 meets the 81-year-old at her modest home in the dusty streets of KwaNdebele in Middelburg, Mpumalanga, Mahlangu, is sitting on the stoep enjoying fresh air.

“IsiNdebele is my culture and I love it. I speak isiNdebele, I walk isiNdebele and I wear isiNdebele,” she said proudly in isiNdebele.


Photo: Amanda Khoza

It's not that she cannot speak other languages, she just prefers to speak her mother tongue, in fact the award winning artist is fluent in Afrikaans and can understand a little bit of English.

“Parents need to teach children from an early age about their culture. My grandchildren speak English at home because their parents teach them to speak English instead of their home language.”

Despite the scorching heat, Mahlangu is in her full traditional isiNdebele regalia. 

Her neatly cut soft grey hair is decorated with beaded tiara. Beaded long drop earings hang from her earlobes and a gold and bronze neck piece is tightly wrapped around her neck. For safety, she has placed a cardboard behind the metal to prevent it from cutting into her skin. 

Underneath the brightly coloured trademark Ndebele blanket, she is wearing a simple t-shirt which she has paired with a traditional beaded Ndebele skirt, only worn by married women. 

The petite woman's feet rest on the concrete floor while she shares anecdotes about the jewelry around her legs. 

"You see your husband will give you a ring, mine gave me this when we got married. I shower with this darling," she said pointing at the metal rings around her legs.

South Africans across the country, and perhaps across the world as well, are celebrating their heritage today. It is the one day in the year, that they get to take time to embrace their cultures, tradition and to reflect on who they are as a people.


Photo: Amanda Khoza

Mahlangu fears that today's youth is not making a concerted effort to try and preserve their cultures.

“Most of you now wear long fake hair. In the Ndebele culture we shave our heads but today young women have hair that disguises them, you cannot even tell which culture they belong to.”

Mahlangu says she often asks the children in the community about their clan names and sadly most of them can't recite them back to her because they don’t know them.

“It is important to know who you are and who your ancestors are. When you get educated, you must not abandon your home language.”

Recounting where her journey on her love for her culture and Ndebele artwork, Mahlangu says it began at the tender age of ten, when she used to watch her mother and grandmother painting the outside walls of their home.

She had a longing to join them and when the pair took a break from painting, she would steal the paint and try her luck. Mischievous Mahlangu would run out of sight as soon as the pair got back.

“They always said, ‘Don’t ever do that again, you are ruining things’.”  

The following day, Mahlangu would be at it again and she again faced the wrath of her matriarchs.

Eventually her mother and grandmother gave up on scolding her and allocated Mahlangu a small space on the wall, away from the public where she could practice how to draw Ndebele patterns.

“The next day I would go there, sit on a tin and take chicken feathers and paint, paint and paint.”

Mahlangu says her mother and grandmother inspected her work daily.

“Eventually they told me that my work was impressive and they called me to paint the front of the house and I never looked back until I got married. In my culture they used to say when you get married, you have to paint your first house yourself.”

Painting was important in the Ndebele culture because the community could tell by the paintings how well the wife was raised, explained Mahlangu.

That was the beginning of Mahlangu’s illustrious career in contemporary Ndebele painting.

Mahlangu is was one of five siblings and was born and raised in Middleburg in Mpumalanga.

Her family moved often until she eventually settled down with her husband, Zozo, in Bronkhospruit.

The couple, who met in the same neighbourhood, had three sons, two have since died as well as Mahlangu's husband.

“When we were growing up, we did not even know that we were poor, that was life for us. We ate meat once in a while but that was life. Sometimes we slaughtered chickens, goats, pigs and in between that we ate spinach.”

While working at her first job at the Botshabelo Historical Village, Mahlangu was approached by researchers from France who had seen her Ndebele painted house and invited her to paint a replica at an art exhibition overseas.

Not long after that, news of Mahlangu’s artwork made headlines and that is when she made history.

She was approached by BMW who asked her to participate in the BMW Art Car Project by painting the BMW 525i sedan in 1991.

In 2016, Mahlangu was reunited with that BMW, which had been on display at the Frieze Art Fair in London as part of the South Africa: The Art of a Nation exhibition at the British Museum. She was surprised that the car was still around and praised those who had preserved it.

“White people are amazing at keeping things, that car looked like I had painted it yesterday,” quipped Mahlangu.  


Photo: Amanda Khoza

Mahlangu was again commissioned to refine another BMW, this time it was a 7 Series and she was pleased to see the final product.

“When they asked me to do it, I told them to bring the panels here and I painted them. They took the parts back to Germany to have them fitted where the car was going to be sold.”

Mahlangu, who is also the recipient for the Presidential Order of Ikhahlanga, silver class, was recently honoured with a mural located on Franklin street and the West Broadway Citi Bike station in Tribeca, New York.

The piece was created by American artist Imani Shanklin Roberts and spans over a two lane road and features Ndebele symbols, according to the Huffington Post.

“I am very happy about the mural. It shows that isiNdebele will never die because they love it too much overseas,” Mahlangu says.

The woman with an infectious laugh says she often wonders why South Africans take the melting pot of cultures for granted and feels that she is celebrated more abroad than in her own country.  

On collaborating with Grammy award winning singer, John Legend, with Belvedere Vodka to help fight Aids in Africa, Mahlangu says the bottles were delivered to her doorstep.

“When I was done they took them and told me to follow them to New York. There was a huge event to showcase the bottles,” she said.

“I have been to big parties, very big parties,” she boasts.

Despite this, the most important thing to the down to earth 81-year-old artist, is to be remembered for work.

When Mahlangu is not promoting her work all over the world, she teaches the children in her community how to paint at her art school and she also teaches them about the Ndebele culture.

Before News24 leaves, Mahlangu can be heard reprimanding the little children kids who have come for a lesson. She tells them to stop wasting paint, to concentrate on painting and stop playing around.  It seems, for Mahlangu, life has come full circle. 

Read more on:    esther mahlangu  |  heritage day

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