Ndebele artist Ester Mahlangu receives honorary doctorate

Meet Dr Esther Mahlangu. The 82-year-old Ndebele artist was on Monday night conferred with an honorary doctorate by the University of Johannesburg. (Amanda Khoza, News24)
Meet Dr Esther Mahlangu. The 82-year-old Ndebele artist was on Monday night conferred with an honorary doctorate by the University of Johannesburg. (Amanda Khoza, News24)

When South African Ndebele artist Esther Mahlangu began painting at the tender age of 10, she never thought that she would get to travel the world just by doing something that she loved.

Mahlangu received an honorary doctorate from the University of Johannesburg on Monday evening.

"I am so grateful to the university management for the gifts given to me today. What they have done for me, they must do for others."

Read: UJ to honour iconic Ndebele artist Esther Mahlangu with honourary doctorate

"If heaven was within reach, I would fly. I never thought that painting would work out so well. I got to travel the world just by doing something that I did out of love," she added.

She was accompanied by members of her community, clad in traditional regalia.

Mahlangu, whose full names are Esther Nikwambi, was born in Middelburg, Mpumalanga in 1935.

In an interview with News24 in September, shortly after she had been honoured with a mural in New York, the 82-year-old said her journey with her love for her culture and Ndebele artwork began when she was 10 years old, when she used to watch her mother and grandmother painting the outside walls of their home.

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

She longed to join them and when the pair took a break from painting, she would steal the paint and try her luck. But, as soon as they returned, she would be out of sight.

"They always said: 'Don't ever do that again, you are ruining things,'" she told News24.  

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

Eventually, her mother and grandmother gave up and allocated Mahlangu a small space on the wall, which was away from the public, where she could practice drawing Ndebele patterns.


(Amanda Khoza, News24)

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

Mahlangu added that 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."

On Monday evening, the university's vice-chancellor and principal Professor Tshilidzi Marwala said the university recognised Mahlangu's legacy as a cultural entrepreneur who skilfully negotiated local and global worlds as an educator.

"As a visionary individual, she traversed what to others are insurmountable political barriers. In the late 1980s, when KwaNdebele and Moutse region erupted in anti-apartheid violence, she [broke] down barriers in her own way.

"During the time she was invited to participate in the groundbreaking Magiciens de la Terre exhibition, a significant achievement for a black female artist at the time.

"The curators asked her to paint the walls of a life-size replica of her Mthambothini home for the exhibition…she would take the language of Ndebele art to the world."


(Amanda Khoza, News24)

Marwala added that, in order to ensure the survival of the Ndebele arts, Mahlangu taught young people at her home.

"She also shares her expertise via a project that aims to document Southern African visual culture as expression of a diversity of inherited local knowledge systems that date back to before the colonisation of Southern Africa."

"Esther Mahlangu is a living example of how authentic African knowledge systems can be articulated meaningfully and sustainably.

"In her we have an icon worthy of being looked upon to by the next generation of creatives," Marwala said.

He said the Faculty of Art, Design and Architecture was honoured to confer the degree of Philosophiae Doctor Honoris Causa upon Mahlangu.

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