The Legendary 85-Year-Old Artist Esther Mahlangu Is Collected by Oprah and Trevor Noah—See Her Breathtaking New Work Here

An exhibition celebrating the artist is on view now at Melrose Gallery in Johannasburg.

Dr. Esther Mahlangu, photo: Clint Strydom. Courtesy of Melrose Gallery.

Esther Nikwambi Mahlangu is a woman of many names. “Dr. Mahlangu, Mam Esther, Esther Mahlangu, Gogo, Mother, Daughter of Africa,” writes curator Ruzy Rusike in a recent exhibition essay. “Applying a singular title to her feels false—she embodies each of those titles and more besides.”

Now, the artist, who celebrated her 85th birthday in November, is adding yet another new descriptor to the long list: sculptor. After a seven-decade career of painting, often applying her distinct geometric patterns to other objects, the artist is expanding her repertoire in a new solo exhibition at South Africa’s Melrose Gallery, proving, as Rusike emphasizes, that, like the nature of art itself, Mahlangu is still evolving.

For the first time, “Dr. Mahlangu has created something specifically as a sculpture, not by painting on something that was created for another purpose,” says Melrose Gallery director Craig Mark.

Dr. Esther Mahlangu, various Clay Pots (2019). Courtesy of the artist and The Melrose Gallery.

“While sculpture and Ndebele painting are not a particularly conventional pairing,” Rusike writes, “there is something natural about seeing Mam Esther’s art transferred to sculpture that feels utterly innate: it is art, evolved.”

Born in the small South African town of Middelburg, Dr. Mahlangu’s work grew out of the traditional house painting that women undertake to mark familial milestones and preserve ancestry. The use of natural pigments eventually gave way to acrylic paints, and the younger generations of artists adopted more bright colors with the more practical medium. Though some tradition remains: she uses wispy chicken feathers to apply the paint into perfectly straight geometric patterns in bright colors, outlined in stark black.

In a video, the artist explains how young women painting Ndebele houses strived to keep the lines rigid, otherwise indicating that they could not keep a good home.

Traditional Ndebele houses. Photo: Clint Strydom.

Dr. Mahlangu’s biggest innovation, though, was deciding to take the house painting process beyond the physical house. She has since brought the small community’s tradition to a BMW car, Belvedere vodka bottles, British Airway plane tails, designer handbags, and, in 2014, was commissioned to paint murals in the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. In 2020, Rolls Royce named a Phantom collection car in her honor.

Craig Mark describes Dr. Mahlangu as a cultural treasure; her work is held in the collections of John Legend, Oprah Winfrey, Trevor Noah, and Swizz Beatz, and Mark emphasizes that while her art is moderately priced, no collection of African art is complete without work by Dr. Mahlangu. With the addition of sculpture to her oeuvre, the artist’s profile is poised to grow even further.

The show “Esther Mahlangu 85” will continue through January 2021, and a career retrospective is scheduled to open in South Africa in 2023. See more photos of her work below.

Installation view of Dr. Esther Mahlangu, <I>85 Gestures</i> (2020). Courtesy of the artist and The Melrose Gallery.

Installation view of Dr. Esther Mahlangu, 85 Gestures (2020). Courtesy of the artist and the Melrose Gallery.

Dr. Esther Mahlangu, Homestead (2020). Courtesy of the artist and the Melrose Gallery.

Dr. Esther Mahlangu at work. Photo: Clint Strydom.

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