Home » Artists


Esther Mahlangu - South Africa

Esther Mahlangu - South Africa - SARENCO FOUNDATION


In 1989 in the Centre Pompidou, Paris, I saw for the first time the reconstruction of a house painted by Esther Mahlangu in the by now historic show "Magiciens de la Terre". Many of the works in the show attracted my amazed attention: besides Mahlangu, there were the hieratic sculptures by Seni Camara, from the heart of the Casamance guerrilla country and shown right in front of the magical Louise Bourgeois; the painted voodoos by Cyprien Tokoudagba; a few but significant guélédé heads by Amidou Dossou (who was then to pass his place and fame onto his inseparable friend from Benin Eloi Lokossou).
A few years later I decided to go to South Africa in order to become really acquainted with both Esther and her works. In the capital, Johannesburg, only artists knew and admired her: she was still unknown to the international art system and even to the tourists in post-apartheid South Africa.
To find her in her adopted homeland, Mpumalanga, was certainly not easy until, suddenly, I came across a road sign saying: Esther Mahlangu lives here, the first Ndebele woman to cross the sea.
I began to take photos and, when I arrived in front of the by-now famous painted house, a stern and colourful figure appeared from the dark interior and walked towards the blinding light of the sun: she looked at me smilingly and asked me to come inside. Her studio-showroom seemed to me, flooded with so many colours and forms as it was, the inside of a pleasant space for eternally smiling people grateful for existing in a setting that was so stimulating.
From then on my visits to Esther became more and more frequent and our friendship grew deeper.
It was Jean-Hubert Martin, then the director of the Pompidou, who discovered Esther's work and showed it in the "Magiciens" exhibition. From then on Esther Mahlangu transferred her paintings from the walls of the Ndebele villages onto canvas, and she has been seen in many of the best museums in the world. The visas in her passport are more numerous than her years (today she is seventy-five but doesn't show it) and they show just how appreciated and esteemed she is by the international art world. Among the most significant things she has created are undoubtedly the facade of the BMW building in Washington, the car painted for the BMW international collection together with other artists of the calibre of Andy Warhol, and her fresco in the Lyons biennale done in collaboration with Sol LeWitt.
From 2000 onwards I organized various shows of her work in Italy and I have invited her twice to participate in the Malindi biennale. Esther is totally immersed in Ndebele culture, which she defends and proposes throughout the world. It is an ancient culture in which the men went hunting to feed numerous families. As the women had to remain alone in the villages with their children, also for fairly long periods of time, they decided to decorate the facades of their houses in order to welcome their men back home after long periods away for their tiring and dangerous hunts. In some way this story finds an echo in the women of other highly bellicose populations (such as in Afghanistan) where the decoration took the form of weaving and carpet-making (the splendid namàd of Central Asia for example).
At first I considered Esther as one of the most interesting "abstract" painters in the world; but she herself contradicted me and said that her paintings were purely decorative and that the elements at the heart of them were nothing other than stylizations of realistic motifs (a razorblade, for instance). So much so that Esther frequently painted and still paints tales about life in the Ndebele villages, and these have the same expressive strength as her "decorative" motifs. Esther Mahlangu is a work of art in herself, just as much as her fascinating paintings: she tours the world with neck-lengthening copper rings, copper bracelets around her ankles, coloured beaded crowns on her head, and a highly coloured bead-decorated cover around her body, beneath which she is completely naked, both in summer and winter. And the winters in Mpumalanga are certainly no more pleasant than those of Italy's Po plain. I will always remember the stir Esther caused in the salons of the "cultured" feminist circles of bourgeois Milan: she was speaking about her tribe and its traditions and then about her painting; when the rich and well-bred ladies asked her if she knew how to dance and sing, Esther remained quite imperturbable and began to sing an amazing Ndebele song, while dancing with extraordinary grace.
This is Esther Mahlangu: an extraordinary woman, an extraordinary artist, and a great champion for the defence of autochthonic cultures which have never accepted being part of the omnivorous and all-absorbing context of planetary globalization.