At the age of ten, Esther Mahlangu’s mother and grandmother taught her beadwork and mural paintings, Ndebele arts that are traditionally taught to daughters as part of their initiation rites. The paintings are made during the dry winter season, on walls primed with mud and cow dung. In the 1940s, Ndebele women began using commercial acrylic paints for their murals, while preserving the art’s traditional characteristics. Mehlengu continues the tradition into which she was raised, and develops it. At first sight, her patterns—which she paints without a brush, using feathers or twigs, with no preparatory sketches—seem wholly abstract. On closer inspection, one can discern signs and symbols that have undergone abstraction and retain basic forms of people, houses, animals, razors (used for ceremonial rites) and project order, symmetry, harmony and ceremony.
Between 1980 and 1991 Mahlangu lived in a village that served as an open Museum for Ndebele culture. She was invited to participate in the “Magiciens de la terre” [Magicians of the World] exhibition in Paris in 1989, where an exact replica of her hut was built at the Grand Hall of the Parc de la Villette, and over two months she painted its walls. Following her Paris breakthrough, she was commissioned to make murals throughout South Africa, Europe and the USA, and was the first woman commissioned to create a BMW Art Car (previously done by Frank Stella, Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol). The car was exhibited in 1992 at the Documneta 9 in Kassel, Germany—offering an extraordinary combination of painting inspired by ancient rituals, contemporary art’s central platform, and a commercial company’s PR marketing project.
In her back yard, Mahlangu established the first-ever Ndebele mural painting school. Furthermore, she was the first artist who broke the tradition and transferred the style from murals to canvas: the geometrical patterns, with their magic meaning, transmitted without change from generation to generation, now became abstract, mobile painting, open to changes. The old distinctions between decorative art and geometrical abstract collapse in the face of paintings that comprise both the traditional pattern and the courage and urge for modern art’s originality.