Esther Mahlangu Retrospective: Homage to an African Art Giant

An Esther Mahlangu original on a canvas - African art

Dr. Esther Mahlangu is a pioneer of creative African expression. In a career spanning just 20 years shy of a century, she has primarily featured designs drawn from her own culture, and for the past 35 years her work has been celebrated all over the world.

In a country so rich in its cultural diversity as South Africa, it is perhaps no wonder that art has emerged as an expression of unique African experiences. Having painted from a young age, as is tradition in the Ndebele culture, Esther Mahlangu’s vibrant, culturally infused designs have earned her and her art global acclaim and recognition. Now, in 2024, her contribution to the African art world is being commemorated through a Retrospective Exhibition tour.

An image of African Art giant, Dr. Esther Mahlangu in traditional Ndebele attire, painting in her traditional style.

A monumental career as an African artist

Dr. Esther Mahlangu practiced her art for 40 years before earning international recognition. In 1989, her talent was recognised by Andre Magnin, a French curator. Magnin noticed a hut that she had painted, prompting an invitation to participate in an exhibition entitled ‘Les Magiciens de le Terre’ at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, France in 1989.

This initial exposure catapulted her international career, leading very promptly to her participation in the BMW Artcar project. Since then, Dr. Mahlangu’s works have been exhibited in over 20 different countries and she has painted murals in eight different countries.

Though she has had the pleasure of working with major galleries and fashion brands, Mahlangu’s art has also worked towards significant causes as seen by her creation of the Belvedere (RED) bottle design, which helped fund a campaign against HIV/AIDS (2016).

An Esther Mahlangu original on a canvas - African art

Esther Mahlangu: A Retrospective unveiling

In commemoration of her contributions to African art and propelling African art stylings to global audiences, Cape Town hosts the start of the global tour of Dr. Esther Mahlangu’s Retrospective Exhibition. The Iziko South African National Gallery has unveiled Then I Knew I Was Good at Painting: Esther Mahlangu, A Retrospective. 

Following its run in Cape Town, the Retrospective tour will moveto Gauteng in August 2024 before heading to the United States and from there all over the world. The exhibition, curated by Nontobeko Ntombela, provides an in-depth exploration of Dr. Mahlangu’s art. Featured are more than 100 contemporary artworks, historic photographs, and a short film which have all been carefully curated and loaned from around the globe.

The event has been made possible thanks to the support of sponsors BMW and the National Arts Council, as well as the implementation of the Retrospective Exhibition by The Melrose Gallery.

Cost: Free (on commemorative days) | R20pp – R40pp (with proof of South African citizenship) | R60 (standard fee)

When: 18 February to 11 August
Where: Iziko South African National Gallery, Government Ave, Gardens, Cape Town

Tel: +27 (0)21 481 3800

Dr. Esther mahlangu's BMW Artcar 1991 - African Art

The BMW Artcar

What started as a cultural tradition of painting used to adorn traditional huts, became a medium that Dr. Mahlangu realised she could transpose onto anything. Over the span of her long career, not only has she taken to painting canvases and mannequins, but she has also ventured into embellishing modern items like cars, motorbikes, bicycles and much more.

One such piece is the BMW Artcar, which is on display as part of the Retrospective. This is the first time the Artcar has been on South African soil since it was first crafted in 1991. In 1991 Dr. Mahlangu became the first African and first woman to be invited to participate in the BMW Art Car project alongside other notable artists, including the likes of Andy Warhol.

She covered the BMW 525i vehicle in patterns and colours from her heritage. The piece is a standout as a representation of tradition meeting modernity.

Esther Mahlangu's painted ballroom shoe - African art

Other featured works of art

In addition to the BMW Artcar, which has been carefully craned into the gallery for the exhibition, various other artworks – loaned from museums and galleries all over the world – are making their appearance as part of the Retrospective. These include various acrylic works painted on canvases, a pair of ballroom shoes painted using acrylic (2003), a Ndebele blanket created using beads on felt, painted makarapas (hard hats donned by sports fans), and more.

The Retrospective will also see the release of a comprehensive 300-page catalogue published by Skira Paris – to be released in July – capturing Dr. Esther Mahlangu’s immense contribution to contemporary art and illuminating her innovative approach that intersects African culture with modernity and the contemporary.

Discover more art experiences in Cape Town 

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