5 life lessons we’ve learnt from Esther Mahlangu

Dr Esther Mahlangu poses in front of an abode she has adorned with her distinctive interpretation of Ndebele visual traditions.
Dr Esther Mahlangu poses in front of an abode she has adorned with her distinctive interpretation of Ndebele visual traditions.
Image: Clint Strydom

Much-loved Dr. Esther Mahlangu has been and remains one of the most influential figures in South Africa. A multi-award winning artist and one of the original disruptors, Mam’ Esther as she is fondly known, has carved a path of success over the course of her career. 

Today, the cultural icon celebrates her 85th birthday, an honour that will be marked by not only the unveiling of  two 16-metre paintings at the Southgate Mall, but also a  rare local exhibition of her works at the Melrose Gallery.

The exhibit, Esther Mahlangu 85, is one of a few solo exhibitions she has held in the country. It will showcase a body of works that the artist has created over the past  three years, including a new series of sculptures.

“I have had very few solo exhibitions in South Africa. It is exciting for me to be launching one of my largest solos ever at the age of 85 in South Africa so that my own people can experience and enjoy these paintings and realise their value,” says the artist.

As we celebrate Mam’ Esther, we reflect on five life lessons we have learnt from the icon.

An untitled abstract work by Dr Esther Mahlangu produced in 2020.
An untitled abstract work by Dr Esther Mahlangu produced in 2020.

1. HARD WORK PAYS OFF

Mahlangu started painting at the tender age of 10 and has continued to hone her craft over the past few decades.

Given the period when she was born, when a lot of opportunities would not have been afforded to her, Mahlangu is a reminder that when one puts their mind to something, they can truly achieve greatness.

In 2020 Mam' Esther became the first ever artist to be commissioned to paint an artwork for the inside of a new Rolls-Royce Phantom. The car was named The Mahlangu in her honour.

2. ITS NEVER TOO LATE

Despite her age, Mahlangu has proven time and time again that one is never too old to re-invent themselves. The maven recently announced a collaboration with Carol Bouwer Bags, a partnership that will produce a limited-edition range of handbags.

While many of us often feel as if time is not on our side, Mahlangu is proof that one can always try something new at any age. With the right commitment and focus, anything is possible.

3. UNDERSTAND YOUR BRAND

One thing that Mahlangu has successfully done over her career is remain consistent, which means her work is easily identifiable.

Inspired by her Ndebele culture, her artworks have continued to be a bastion of the colourful Ndebele patterns that have catapulted her to fame.

Even with changing fashion, Mam’ Esther has also continued be identified by her traditional attire which she proudly dons.

Mahlangu is proof that understanding your brand (even while being inventive), sticking to the trademarks that make you noticeable, can result in longevity.

Dr Esther Mahlangu continues to paint with a feather brush as per the Ndebele visual traditions.
Dr Esther Mahlangu continues to paint with a feather brush as per the Ndebele visual traditions.
Image: Clint Strydom

4. PASSION IS KEY

A Chinese sage, Confucius, once said: "Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life," a sentiment Mahlangu shares.

“I love art. It is part of me and I can’t separate it from who I am. Many people ask me when I am going to retire. But making art is not a job to me, it is a major part of who I am and I will continue to paint as long as I am able,” she said.

Mahlangu reminds us that when we do something we love, not only can we achieve financial freedom, but that the pursuit ceases to feel laborious.

5. BE PROUD OF YOUR TRADITION

There can be no doubt that Mahlangu is proud of her culture.  Not only reflected in her artworks, the traditionalist at heart, has continued to proudly wear her brass rings or “dzilla”. She has also continued the tradition of painting with a feather paintbrush. 

Mahlangu's pride in her culture is due to her drive to  “pass on our tradition from generation to generation. So they can see where Ndebele comes from.”

Here we are reminded that while the world continues to evolve and modernise, sometimes looking down on traditions and traditional practices, the love of one's culture need not prevent them from prospering and driving a positive narrative about where one comes from.

Esther Mahlangu 85’ can be viewed online from November 11 at here.

The exhibition will be open from November 20 at The Melrose Gallery, Melrose Arch, Johannesburg.


X