Mahlangu leads by example

M&G | Zaza Hlalethwa

Shallow calabashes filled with clay and cow dung sit on the stoep of a hut on a farm just outside Middelburg in the late 1940s. A preteen Esther Mahlangu alternates between dipping chicken feathers and thick plant roots into the calabashes. With narrowed eyes, she applies the thick pastes on the hut’s walls with gentle, eager strokes. Mahlangu is beginning to learn the Ndebeles’ painting techniques and is restricted to the back wall of her home. This ritual of a cross-legged Mahlangu painting and repainting the same patterns, on a part of the hut hidden from visitors’ views, continued. With no maths set, rulers or stencil, she practised the symmetrical circles, triangles and straight lines of the geometric patterns that characterise Ndebele artwork until the matriarchs, who were teaching her, approved of her work and allowed her to paint on the front walls of the house.

The inherited pride of the cultural practice and process planted a seed that groomed the young Ndebele girl to become the Dr Esther Mahlangu we know today. Her latest work is a mural at the Nirox Sculpture Park in the Cradle of Humankind, part of the 2018 winter sculpture exhibition, Not a Single Story, which opened last weekend and will be on show until July 29. Its title was inspired by author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED talk, in which she warned against limiting people’s experiences to a single perspective. To bring this message across, the exhibition predominantly features the works of women artists from South Africa and around the world, including Nandipha Mntambo, Jane Alexander, Nelisiwe Xaba, Yoko Ono, Mary Sibande, Lena Cronqvist, Beth Armstrong, Mwangi Hutter, Ayana V Jackson, Frances Goodman, Caroline Mårtensson, Claudette Schreuders and Mahlangu. An arts education programme will run alongside the exhibition…read more

Image: Gulshan Khan/AFP