BLACK ATLAS — Esther Mahlangu
The Preservation of Ndebele Culture
photography — Trevor Stuurman
article — Rea Khoabane
motion — Wesley Johnson
After driving for two hours from Johannesburg, we finally arrive at Esther Mahlangu’s colourful house with geometrical designs and are welcomed by her nephew, Isaac Mahlangu who travels with her abroad.
They say it’s never too late to achieve your dreams. But in Esther Mahlangu’s case she cannot be reduced to her age, history, ethnicity as her work shows she’s remarkably a youthful black woman.
Age 81, Mahlangu was at the center stage again on the global art scene with her latest work involving joining forces with American star John Legend and luxury vodka brand Belvedere to raise money for HIV prevention and painting BMW 7 series interior.
However, Mahlangu’s career was doubly propelled by the 1989 invitation to participate in the landmark Magicients de la Terre exhibition and the 1991 BMW commission to paint a car for their Art Car Collection.
Mahlangu was discovered while she was living at the Botshabelo Mission Station – an open-air museum established to preserve the Ndebele culture in Middleburg.
Researchers from the Pompidou had seen her home and set about tracking down her extraordinary talent and turned her culture into contemporary art. Her art is beyond walls and canvas. Lately her work can be seen on African pots, mannequins and sneakers.
With no form of education, Mahlangu’s art is handed down from one generation to the next. Back then the Ndebele women used natural resources like soil and cow dung to create colour. Of which she still uses. “I prefer to use soil because that’s the cultural way that I was taught”.
Her art consists white limestone, ochre clay, ash mixed with water, black clay and cow dung and when she paints on her wooden canvas she uses chicken feathers and twigs as brushes.
Mahlangu collects her soil or stones in the velds and we got to drive with her to collect white limestone. “If I was a young girl I would have walked about 10 kilometers to get here”. Rubbing the white stone to feel the texture, she says it does not reach enough to be white but it will work as a grey colour.
Like many Ndelebe girls of her generation, she was taught beadwork and wall painting at a young age. Her art is a retelling of Ndebele natives’ rich history and culture: straight parallel lines with layout drawings, the origins which are unknown but have been amongst the Ndebele culture.
Taught to paint by her mother in the distinctive style of the Nzuna Ndebel clan:
“As a young wife I was watched very closely while painting my first wall. I had to show my knowledge and understanding for everyone to see.”
Residing in a small village called Mabhoko in Mpumalanga, Mahlangu travels the world in her colourful extravagant Ndebele attire from head to toe. She wears a Ndebele blanket over her shoulders, tower of gold and bronze braas rings and beaded hair bands daily. “The blanket do not have meaning, we used to wear cow skin and the when white people arrived they modernized our look with the blankets,” said Mahlangu. The blankets are called ‘ikombesi’, while the beaded ones are called ‘ngurara’.
Women express their status by adorning themselves with ornaments and colourful items.
Under her blanket, she wears cow skin in a pattern of a wraparound skirt and beaded rings called ‘isigolwana’ which are also seen on her legs, arms, and waist.
Her tower of braas on her neck and on her legs and arms are called ‘Idzila’ which often weigh 20 kilograms symbol of her wedding rings. The beaded colourful rings also seen on her neck, arms and legs are called ‘Izungu’.
“The gold rings don’t come off. My husband and family put them on and I have never attempted to take them off.”
A teacher herself, Mahlangu teaches kids around her own community to preserve the Ndebele culture. Even though she’s the only one who’s a true symbol of Ndebele woman, she said theirs is nothing important to her than her culture. “Young people have become modern and have abandoned their culture, seeing boys wear the tower of braas rings is just wrong”. “Girls can wear their trousers and be modern, but it makes me happy when I see them wear their traditional attires to weddings,” says Mahlangu.
While she’s talking one can’t help but notice a black line going from her forehead to her nose. She describes it as a symbol of being smart. “As young kids, this is how you were differentiated from ordinary kids. As silly kids in the village, an older child will the pokes a needle from forehead down to the nose so that people can notice you’re different”.