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7 things you didn’t know about: Dr. Esther Mahlangu

South African artist Esther Mahlangu, poses at her home in Mabhoko Village, Siyabuswa, Mpumalanga on March 6, 2017.
South African artist Esther Mahlangu, poses at her home in Mabhoko Village, Siyabuswa, Mpumalanga on March 6, 2017.
Image: AFP PHOTO / GULSHAN KHAN (Photo credit should read GULSHAN KHAN/AFP/Getty Images)

Renowned artist, Dr Esther Mahlangu is set to receive the award of Officer in the French Order of Arts and Letters at a special celebration that coincides with the local Bastille day celebrations at the French Residence.

The award will be presented on behalf of the French Minister of Culture during the celebrations in Pretoria today. 

The award recognises artists for their significant contribution to the enrichment of the arts and literature in France and abroad.

Known as the country’s national treasure for her incredible work, Mahlangu joins a list of other South African recipients which includes Johnny Clegg, Gregory Maqoma and Zanele Muholi.

 To celebrate this incredible milestone, we’ve listed seven things you probably didn’t know about the award-winning artist.  

1. She learnt how to paint when she was nine

Mahlangu was taught how to paint by her mother and grandmother. The artist started perfecting her craft using traditional soil paint from the forests and by the rivers. By the time she was a teen she was an expert at executing murals using a wide range of paint colours.

2. Mahlangu was the first person to transfer the traditional Ndebele style of mural painting to canvas

Painting on a mural is an ancient traditional practice in the Ndebele culture but Mahlangu is a trailblazer when it comes to transferring the mural paintings on to canvas.


3. She is the first woman to take part in the BMW Art Car Project

In 1991, she painted her geometric patterns on a BMW 525i. This made her the first African woman to be part of the project and BMW 525i is deemed the first African art car.

4. Her first international exhibition was in France in 1989

After researchers from Paris saw the paintings on Mahlangu’s house in 1986, they invited her to create murals for an exhibition of international contemporary art called the Magicians of the World. In 1989, she flew to France and lived there for two months and painted a house in front of thousands of spectators. 

5. She built an art school in the backyard of her home

When the world-renowned artist isn’t exhibiting her work all over the globe, she spends time mentoring young artists in the KwaMhlanga district in Mpumalanga. Her students learn how to mix pigments and paint straight lines freehand and without sketches, using their fingers or chicken feathers.

6. She is the eldest of nine children

Mahlangu is no stranger to the title of ‘first’, she’s been at it since birth! She is the first of nine children. She has six brothers and two sisters.

7. Her 2018 Ndebele Patterns acrylic on canvas auctioned for over 90k at Strauss & Co

In February 2019, Mahlangu’s Ndebele Patterns sold for a whopping R91 040. She had previously donated her 2008 acrylic-on-canvass work for the benefit of a Soweto art project which was then valued at R35 000.

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