Esther Mahlangu, Mzansi’s own global icon


Meet Esther Mahlangu, a South African artist, best known around the world for her artwork that showcases her Ndebele heritage.


Esther Nikwambi Mahlangu, a Ndebele woman was born outside of Middelburg, Mpumalanga, South Africa, in November 1935. Her passion for painting began at 10 years old, when her mother and grandmother taught her the skill of mural painting, a tradition of the South Ndebele people, where women decorate the exteriors of their homes. Esther later worked at the Botshabelo Museum before becoming a full-time artist.


In 1986, a researcher from Paris, who was travelling around the world doing traditional arts documentaries, saw Esther’s paintings and invited her to create murals for an exhibition of international contemporary art, the Magiciens de la Terre (‘Magicians of the World’). She then travelled to France in 1989 to paint a house in front of thousands of people.


Mahlangu also painted a wall inside the AngoulÁªme Museum of Fine Arts and showed her work at other locations in France. In 1990, she painted murals for public venues in South Africa followed by locations in Europe and the United States. Her work appeared in exhibitions in more than a dozen countries.


In 1991, car brand BMW, commissioned her to paint the interior of their 525i model, and was the first “African Art Car” painted with typical Ndebele motifs. The car was later exhibited at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, DC in 1994. It was then exhibited at the British Museum, London in 2017.


Not wanting to see her cultural heritage perish, the icon started an arts school in her backyard, in Mabhoko (Weltevreden), KwaMhlanga District in Mpumalanga. She self-funded the school, and when not travelling for exhibitions, she mentors young artists in the traditional style of Ndebele design. The students are taught how to mix pigments and paint straight lines, freehanded and without sketches, using their fingers or chicken feathers.


Esther has now partnered with Iziko Museums of South Africa, on an exhibition named “Then I Knew I Was Good at Painting: Esther Mahlangu, A Retrospective”, from 17 February 2024. Curated by Nontobeko Ntombela, the exhibition highlights Dr Esther Mahlangu’s over 50-year long career, and her meteoric rise as a contemporary artist, earning her global acclaim. The monumental retrospective will be open to the public in Cape Town, at the Iziko South African National Gallery from 18 February 18 until 11 August 2024. From there it will begin its global tour, stopping first at the Wits Art Museum in Johannesburg, before moving to the United States in early 2026.


Iziko Museums of South Africa operates eleven national museums, the Planetarium and Digital Dome, the Social History Centre and three collection specific libraries in Cape Town. The museums that make up Iziko have their own history and character, presenting extensive art, social and natural history collections that reflect the diverse African heritage. Iziko is a public entity and public benefit organisation that brings together these museums under a single governance and leadership structure. It allows free access to all individuals on commemorative days (excluding the Castle of Good Hope, Groot Constantia, Planetarium and Digital Dome).


The Melrose Gallery, her global representative, is tasked with the implementation of the Exhibition. The Gallery is a leading Pan African Contemporary gallery in Johannesburg. It represents established and emerging artists whose voices speak to issues of significance to the Continent of Africa globally. They are passionate about ensuring that the elders who have contributed valuably to African Contemporary Art are recognised and continue to be heard.


Esther Mahlangu’s works are represented in over twenty-seven public institutions’ collections, and she has been collected by private individuals worldwide. She continues her artistic career to this day. Esther Mahlangu is also the recipient of numerous honorary doctorates for her contribution to art.


Brand South Africa applauds Esther Mahlangu for playing her part in contributing to efforts that showcase her culture through contemporary paintings, that reference her Ndebele heritage, and flying the flag for South Africa’s diverse cultures. She is a true example of a global icon.