Esther Mahlangu. Picture: FINANCIAL MAIL
Esther Mahlangu. Picture: FINANCIAL MAIL

The likes of Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse were inspired by African indigenous art, but seldom have we seen artists from the continent really taking flight while staying faithful to the traditions that birthed their motifs.

That’s changing, thanks to Esther Mahlangu, a canny octogenarian with a magic chicken-feather paintbrush.

This sprightly 81-year-old Mpumalanga artist has placed Ndebele art and design emphatically on the international map over the past 25 years, with her striking geometric patterns gracing galleries, museums and collections all over the globe — not to mention leading brands, including luxury and youth products.

But this year was a particularly memorable and rewarding one for her. She has pimped rides and kicks, blinged up alcohol bottles and raked in accolades and acclaim as if they were autumn leaves outside her traditional homestead decorated with her signature Ndebele motifs.

Earlier this month Mahlangu won a lifetime achievement award at the Mbokodo Awards, which celebrate women in the arts, and in October she received the Minister’s Award from tourism minister Derek Hanekom at the Lilizela Tourism Awards for being "a national treasure and an outstanding ambassador for SA’s rich cultural offerings".

Just months earlier, she was rubbing shoulders with R&B star John Legend as the two teamed up for Belvedere vodka’s Red campaign, which raises funds for the fight against HIV/Aids in Africa. He contributed a song to the campaign; she designed the limited-edition bottle.

But arguably one of the highest-profile projects Mahlangu has been involved in this year is designing patterns for the wooden interior trims of a 2016 BMW Individual 7 Series car, which was auctioned in October to benefit UK charity The Art Room (the reserve price was £120,000).

This sprightly 81-year-old Mpumalanga artist has placed Ndebele art and design on the international map, with her striking geometric patterns gracing collections all over the globe — not to mention leading brands

It’s a natural succession to the partnership with the German car maker that put her art on the map 25 years ago.

Her 1991 BMW Art Car, with its entire exterior covered in colourful Ndebele patterns, made waves as a dynamic work of art created to celebrate the end of apartheid. The car can be seen in the exhibition SA: The Art of a Nation at the British Museum in London until February 26 2017.

Brands seem to be attracted to Mahlangu like bees to honey, resulting in partnerships that are as unexpected as they are delightful. She has designed a pair of sneakers for Swedish brand Eytys, for example, and her art has been used by Fiat and on the tails of British Airways planes.

But where does this unlikely global art star hail from? Born in the small Mpumalanga town of Middelburg, Mahlangu was taught how to paint by her mother and grandmother.

Ndebele artistic technique and patterning know-how is passed down through the maternal line, with women painting the walls of their mud huts with murals consisting of distinctive black outlines filled with colourful symbols and motifs. The Ndebele are also known for their elaborate beadwork and affection for heavy metal hoops and rings.

It is said that Ndebele wall art went beyond the decorative to become a defiant symbol of solidarity and cultural resistance against the colonial and apartheid oppressors, with motifs often used as a type of code.

The style appears deceptively simple, but much concentration and effort go into creating and painting the symmetrical, proportionate designs — usually done freehand (no rulers!) and with a chicken feather. The traditional use of natural pigment — and earthier colours — has gradually been replaced by the ease and versatility of acrylic paint, with bold colours like pink making for a zesty juxtaposition of the traditional and the contemporary.

When Mahlangu began to attract local renown she transposed her paintings to canvas, embracing the economics of the art world instead of shunning them. In the late 1980s, French researchers noticed her work and asked her to exhibit her paintings overseas — and there began an incredible globe-trotting odyssey that continues to this day, earning her the presidential Order of Ikhamanga in 2006 along the way.

Some critics have commented on how, by bringing it into the mainstream, Ndebele culture has been cheapened and commodified. But it’s hard to deny the influence artists such as Mahlangu have had — not just in raising the profile of indigenous African design, but in getting younger Ndebele women excited about the possibilities their art holds for economic upliftment.

She said in a recent interview: "To paint is in my heart and it’s in my blood. The way I paint was taught to me by my mother and my grandmother. The images and colours have changed and I have painted on many different surfaces and objects, but I still love to paint."

For her efforts in making SA cultural identity sing and take flight on the global stage while staying true to her roots, Esther Mahlangu is our arts newsmaker for 2016.

Honourable mentions go to comedian Trevor Noah (host of the Daily Show in the US), DJ and producer Black Coffee (recipient of multiple international awards, including Best Deep House DJ in Ibiza), multiple Grammy-winning isicathamiya group Ladysmith Black Mambazo (which has just received its umpteenth Grammy nomination for Best World Music Album), SA actresses Terry Pheto and Pearl Thusi (who are making major inroads in American film and television productions), and artist William Kentridge and composer Philip Miller, who staged the contemporary artwork Triumphs and Laments, a large-scale 500m-long frieze along Rome’s Tiber River waterfront, accompanied by a live theatrical event with shadow play and processional bands.

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