Mahlangu, who has been painting since the age of 10, has been making art consistently throughout her life and has remained active as an artist in her advanced years. Esther Mahlangu 85 not only pays tribute to her 70-plus years as an artist, but will also showcase a body of artworks created over the last three years including the bold, geometric paintings for which she has received acclaim and an exciting new series of sculptures.
The bold angular forms and flat colours that have defined Mahlangu’s art are rooted in Ndebele visual traditions. Following in the footsteps of her mother and grandmother, the artist learnt how to paint murals guided by Ndebele traditions from the age of 10. Keen to exploit new possibilities for her art, she transitioned from walls to canvases and later covering all manner of found objects from war helmets, caravans and motorbikes to mannequins and planes with her characteristic black lines and angular shapes in vivid colours.
No two works are the same, though they are all strongly united by a minimalist vocabulary that belies the complexity involved in this pristine distillation of line and colour. How exactly does she maintain such a high level of perfection in her brushstrokes? The artist explains how mastering the line was an essential part of being a young woman.
‘In our tradition if a young woman cannot paint a straight line, the potential in laws would say that she is not good marriage material. It became something that was essential to master and once mastered it becomes automatic, the straight lines and balance of each painting is non-negotiable and an essential part of Ndebele painting’ says Mahlangu.Esther Mahlangu
In addition to experimenting with the formal characteristics of her art and continuously striving toward compositional balance, introducing Ndebele cultural and visual traditions into high art circles and popular culture is what drives Mahlangu.
‘I want to pass on our tradition from generation to generation, so they can see where Ndebele comes from,’ she says.
Mahlangu’s paintings and sculptures, pulsating with bright colours popping against black borders and patterns, have been exhibited at the Museum of Arts and Design, New York, The British Museum, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao, the National Museum of African Art at The Smithsonian Institution and, famously, at the Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, when she made her debut in Europe in the late eighties.
Esther Mahlangu 85 can be viewed online from November 11. The exhibition will also be physically open from November 20 at The Melrose Gallery.