2003, Esther Mahlangu, Suid Afrika Vorentoe (South Africa Ahead

Iziko Museums of South Africa is pleased to announce “Then I Knew I Was Good at Painting”: Esther Mahlangu, A Retrospective, is opening on February 17, 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 at the Iziko South African National Gallery from February 18 until August 11, 2024.  From there it will then begin its global tour, stopping first at Wits Art Museum in Johannesburg, South Africa, before moving to the United States in early 2026. The Melrose Gallery, Esther Mahlangu’s global representative, was tasked with the implementation of the Retrospective Exhibition. 

Through the language of colour and form, the exhibition charts Mahlangu’s contribution to contemporary art for close to seven decades. More than 100 artworks have been loaned from international collections, carefully curated alongside historic photographs and a short film. Also included in the exhibition is Mahlangu’s BMW 525i Art Car which makes its historic return to South Africa for the first time in more than 30 years. Mahlangu became the first woman and first African to be invited to participate in the prestigious BMW Art Car Collection in 1991. This diverse collection from Mahlangu’s expansive oeuvre which features in “Then I Knew I Was Good at Painting”: Esther Mahlangu, A Retrospective, will offer a comprehensive yet intimate insight into her vast and vibrant career. 

“Mahlangu’s journey is a testament to passion, innovation, and resilience,” Curator Nontobeko Ntombela remarks. Continuing, “The retrospective pays homage to Esther Mahlangu’s unique approach to art, which intersects African cultures with modernity and the contemporary. The exhibition celebrates Mahlangu’s voice, agency, and pioneering spirit, symbolizing her self-enunciation, self-determination and creativity.”

Recounting how her artistic journey began, Esther Mahlangu often tells the story of being trained by her grandmother and mother in the early 1940s, saying: “I would continue to paint on the house when they left for a break. When they came back, they would say: ‘What have you done, child? Never do that again!’ After that, I started drawing on the back of the house, and slowly my drawings got better and better until they finally asked me to come back to the front of the house. Then I knew I was good at painting.The retrospective exhibition draws its inspiration from Esther Mahlangu’s remarkable story of how she discovered her extraordinary artistic talent as a young girl of just 10 years old. It is in this self-assertive stance that the retrospective exhibition is framed, which is conveyed through her own voice and self-positioning. 

“Painting has always been a part of me. I cannot separate it from myself, and neither would I want to. I look forward to sharing my practice and long and colourful story with you on my upcoming Retrospective Exhibition.”, Dr Esther Mahlangu. 

 The retrospective is a landmark achievement for South African art. It recognizes Mahlangu as one of the few South African artists who have had the opportunity to present a Retrospective Exhibition in world-renowned museums. Of the exhibition, Dr Bongani Ndhlovu, Acting CEO, Iziko Museums of South Africa, says: “Iziko Museums is honored to celebrate the living legend, Dr Esther Mahlangu, and to host this colossal showcase where creativity, culture, and aesthetics are fused.” He continues, “Dr. Mahlangu is a living symbol of triumph against adversity. Her approach to art has inspired generations and is a reaffirmation of calls for Africa-centred innovations.”  

Transcending the boundaries of canvas and mural, Mahlangu’s work displays an inimitable fluency across diverse mediums, from small, treasured keepsakes to vast public installations and murals. With its main point of departure in traditional Ndebele practices of wall paintings and beadwork, her artistry finds expression in the most unlikely places, extending to novel surfaces such as sculptures, ceramics and everyday objet trouvés. Her unparalleled mastery in transforming space and form invites contemplation on complex themes, ranging from the nexus of art and society to the resonances of historical warfare and land reclamation. 

Then I Knew I Was Good at Painting: Esther Mahlangu, A Retrospective has been made possible with the generous support of the National Arts Council and BMW.  

Esther Mahlangu, BMW.

Investec Cape Town Art Fair
Dr Esther Mahlangu has agreed to present a solo exhibition in conversation with Bonolo Kavula in the Generations Section of the Investec Cape Town Art Fair 2024. 

 The section, titled GENERATIONS, is co-curated by Natasha Becker, a contemporary African art curator who lives and works in San Francisco and Amogelang Maledu, an interdisciplinary art practitioner working between curating, research and sessional lecturing, based in Cape Town. 

GENERATIONS celebrates artists who are at different stages in their careers and instigates cross-generational conversations among them.  

“It is our hope that GENERATIONS will foreground artists, addressing the flaws of the past and reconstruct a future that utilizes the talents and creativity of all generations.” shared the curators.

Esther Mahlangu, Ndebele Abstract, 2023, acrylic on canvas, 180cm diameter.


Esther Mahlangu | Photograph by Clint Strydom


Esther Mahlangu, 2010

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