Esther Mahlangu Embodies the Ideals of Post-Apartheid South Africa

A Cape Town retrospective showcases the diverse accomplishments of an artist whose Ndebele-inspired graphical style led to collaborations with BMW and Comme Des Garçons

BY Allie Biswas in Exhibition Reviews | 10 APR 24

Acknowledged within South Africa as a living legend, the painter Esther Mahlangu, now 88, came to embody the ideals of her homeland in its immediate post-Apartheid period in a way unmatched by her fellow South African artists. Vivid, symmetrical designs distinguished her work early on – a long-standing art form of the Ndebele, to which Mahlangu belongs, who paint such motifs on their homes. This house-painting tradition became a signifier of political resistance towards the end of the 19th century after the Ndebele were dispossessed of their land. In a similar vein, Mahlangu’s vibrant patterns could be understood as a graphic manifestation of what Nelson Mandela envisaged when he spoke of South Africa as a ‘rainbow nation’ after his election victory in 1994. Yet, the exhibition does not acknowledge the rich context of Ndebele, instead emphasizing Mahlangu’s ‘fluid relationship’ between the indigenous and the contemporary, while defining Ndebele painting simply as traditional mural culture.


In ‘Then I Knew I Was Good at Painting’, her first retrospective, Mahlangu’s accomplishments are made evident from the outset. ‘ESTHER IS HERE’, reads the hand-painted notice in the museum’s courtyard, ‘The 1st woman who visited overseas. ART WOMAN.’ Borrowed from her home in Mabhoko Village, in the Mpumalanga province east of Pretoria, this self-bestowed accolade has functioned for years as a signpost to those looking for Mahlangu. The artist’s gesture of making herself known reverberates throughout the exhibition, with the title referencing how Mahlangu’s dedication to mastering Ndebele painting as a child led her mother to entrust her to decorate their house. Of greater consequence, though, was an invitation she received decades later from the curators of the 1989 exhibition ‘Magiciens de la Terre’ held at the Centre Pompidou, Paris. When they travelled to her village, it was Mahlangu’s house, with its unusual tonal combinations and inventive borders, that caught their eye. Mahlangu painted a reproduction of her house on-site at the Pompidou, here replicated in miniature (Model of Esther Mahlangu’s House, 2023). 

Esther Mahlangu, ‘Then I Knew I Was Good at Painting’, 2024, exhibition view, Iziko South African National Gallery, Cape Town

International attention quickly followed: in 1991, as apartheid legislation started to be repealed, BMW commissioned her to paint one of its cars to mark this critical juncture. The vehicle is a prominent addition here and it isn’t difficult to recognize the impact it would have had at the time. As an aspirational object that inaugurated a new era, Mahlangu’s car was a tangible departure from the so-called mud hut that her art had previously adorned – and it was the first time that she had painted on a surface that wasn’t a wall. Other collaborations followed with Alessi, British Airways and Comme Des Garçons, as well as experiments with surfaces, though the latter translates here more as a repetitive exercise than as a powerful repositioning of Ndebele design. A skateboard appears alongside a pair of shoes: the patterns could be applied anywhere. Evident, though, is how replication, for Mahlangu, is as much about preserving Ndebele culture as it is about showcasing her entrepreneurial attitude. Or the point, perhaps, is that one endeavour doesn’t exist without the other.

Esther Mahlangu, ‘Then I Knew I Was Good at Painting’, 2024, exhibition view, Iziko South African National Gallery, Cape Town

Global success may have been achieved through the reconfiguration and amplification of these geometries, but the most alluring works are those that place Mahlangu in a new light, particularly the paintings that tell a story. In Untitled (Figures with Dwelling) (2007), for instance, an Ndebele house is preserved within its own private orbit suggestive of a sacred space, while the close-knit customs of village life are palpable in Ndebele Dwelling with Figures (2017). As the exhibition shows, the way in which Mahlangu perceives, adapts and develops her community’s traditions is reflective of an inquisitive artist who favours versatility. These compositions clarify how her engagement with Ndebele culture functions as far more than an aesthetic impulse in her work.

Esther Mahlangu’s ‘Then I Knew I Was Good at Painting’ is on view at Iziko South African National Gallery, Cape Town, until 11 August

Allie Biswas is a writer and editor. She co-edited The Soul of a Nation Reader: Writings by and about Black American Artists, 1960-1980 with Mark Godfrey, published in June 2021. She is based in London, UK.