The Iziko South African National Gallery is reporting impressive visitor numbers for Dr Esther Mahlangu’s Retrospective Exhibition.

Over 1000 people attended the 3 days of openings over the week of the 14th  February including a large group of local and international media. Media exposure has been extensive, and feedback has been overwhelmingly positive.

‘Then I Knew I Was Good at Painting’, Dr Mahlangu’s first Retrospective Exhibition, presents over 100 artworks created between 1990 and 2023. These were loaned by collectors from all over the world for this exhibition curated by Nontobeko Ntombela.

One of the many highlights of the exhibition is the acclaimed BMW Art Car created by Dr Mahlangu in 1991 that has made its way home for the first time in over 30 years. The car could not fit through the front door of the National Gallery and was therefore craned over the roof, into the atrium, and then pushed into the Lieberman Room.

Dr Mahlangu became the first woman and first African to be invited to participate in the BMW Art Car Collection in 1991 alongside other notables of the likes of Andy Warhol, David Hockney, Roy Lichtenstein, and Frank Stella.

The title of the exhibition was inspired by a story that Dr Mahlangu often tells about her first attempts to join the woman of her community in decorating their buildings at 10 years old. She would wait until they took a break, and she would then try to continue their paintings.

When they returned, they would say ‘child, don’t do that again. Go and practice on the back of the house until you are ready’. One day her grandmother called her mother to see what her daughter had done and when she saw the quality of her work, she was invited to join the woman in painting the front of the homes. This is when Dr Mahlangu says that she ‘knew she was good at painting’.

This ground-breaking exhibition presents many paintings, some of which are very large in scale, others which are painted in natural pigments, and various objects such as a TV, skateboard deck, vessels, mannequins and others that Dr Mahlangu has painted over the years. It also includes a detailed timeline that presents the enormous amount of work that Dr Mahlangu has done locally and internationally over 4 decades.

The timeline, the paintings on canvas and these objects illustrate how Dr Mahlangu has been challenging the concept of Ndebele art as ‘mural’ for over 40 years. Painting on a car, or on Iman Bowie’s nude body in the 1990’s, or a mannequin can’t be considered traditional Ndebele art. Dr Mahlangu learnt the art of Ndebele design from her mother and grandmother as a young girl as is tradition amongst the Ndebele and yet her disruptive and innovative spirit led her to reimagine these designs on contemporary mediums to expose them to large global audiences.

The exhibition includes several monumental paintings.

Although deeply rooted in her Ndebele culture, Dr Mahlangu is also a woman of the world. Someone who has travelled extensively and remained open to collaborations and the exploration of new mediums and techniques throughout her career. The latest of which is the unveiling of BMW’s colour change technology with the ‘Nostokana’ car at Frieze L.A. earlier this month which generated extensive media and other positive exposure.

Visitors to the museum are greeted by a large artwork on the fascia of the National Gallery that acts to declare Dr Mahlangu’s occupation of the building and flows across 5 rooms and the atrium. The atrium links to the importance of the outdoors in relation to Dr Mahlangu’s studio and school and has been conceptualized as an educational space for workshops and the like.

A short film, and quiet space to be used for contemplation, the reading of books and consideration of the timeline are also presented in order to provide audiences with some insight into Dr Mahlangu’s valuable contribution to contemporary art over many decades.

Dr Mahlangu has always been passionate about education and a programme will be implemented including a printed supplement, school and public tours, workshops and a symposium. A 300-page catalogue is to be published later this year featuring essays by 8 experts within the field.

The exhibition made possible with support from BMW, the National Arts Council, The Alkemi Collective, and The Melrose Gallery will run at the Iziko South African National Gallery until 11 August 2024, and it will then visit the Wits Art Museum in Johannesburg from November 2024 until April 2025. It is then set to tour international museums for an extended period thereafter. It should not be missed. 

World War helmet, acrylic

Installation shot with BMW Art Car.

Installation of 87 paintings.

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