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Doctoring cultural art into future

Legendary Esther Mahlangu is likely the most revered cultural artist of our time and has carried the Ndebele flag high all over the world for almost 40 years.

And now every SA citizen can own a piece of Esther Mahlangu's work, thanks to iconic Tiger brands: Albany as well as Tastic and even Freshpak - teaming up with the legendary gogo recently.

As part of the partnership with Tiger brands, Mahlangu, 82, shared her journey with pupils at the National School of the Arts in Braamfontein last week in order to leave a legacy which her parents left for her.

"Art can give you bread, can give you food [rice]. And there is no greater privilege than passing on my Ndebele tradition art that is so much a part of culture in South Africa, and which is why I want to build the isiNdebele Art School," said Mahlangu.

As she taught students, including aspiring Ndebele poet Nqobile Mahlangu, 16, and Lettie Mahlangu, 16, how to paint with chicken feathers - she regaled how she started painting at the age of 10.

"I want to emphasise that if you want to end up like me you have to stay true to your culture," she said.

She received an honorary degree at the University of Johannesburg earlier this year.

Born in 1935 on a farm on the outskirts of Middelburg in Mpumalanga, the doctor explained that she adopted the painting from her mother and grandmother who practised the art.

She is the eldest of nine children and says she married in the 1940s and had three sons, but death robbed her of her husband and two of her sons.

She says she found solace in Botshabelo Historical Village, an open-air museum of Ndebele culture, where she worked and lived between 1980 and 1991.

Many have asked what makes Mahlangu special as so many other Ndebele women practise the art?

She was spotted by researchers from Paris who admired the colourful patterns on her house.

They then invited her to create murals for an exhibition of international contemporary art, the Magiciens de la Terre ('Magicians of the World'), in 1989. In 1990 she painted for public venues in Johannesburg and elsewhere in SA, soon followed by locations in Europe and the United States.

Her work appeared in exhibitions in more than 12 countries. She was also the first person to transfer the print to canvas.

In 1991, she painted her geometric patterns on a BMW 525i, becoming the 12th artist and first woman to take part in the BMW Art Car Project after artists such as Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein.

Mahlangu was once again commissioned by BMW to refine a BMW 7 Series two years ago, which was displayed at the Frieze Art Fair in London.

John Legend was also privileged to team up with Mahlangu to create the Belvedere Red limited edition bottle two years ago. The global campaign was aimed at tackling the HIV/Aids pandemic in Africa.

Last September she had two lanes dedicated to her in New York in conjunction with Citi Bike station in Tribeca. Rapper Kid X also teamed up with the iconic Mahlangu for his new album cover, Mfana Ka Aunty.

The Freshpak/Esther Mahlangu limited edition tin has been designed with only 40000 tins available nationwide in selected retailers from mid-October.

A portion of the proceeds will be donated to an NGO to ensure the preservation of this beautiful art form.

- Additional reporting by Boitumelo Kgobotlo

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