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Ndebele Artist Popularizes Traditional Technique


Esther Mahlangu is almost 80 but she's still going strong. For decades, she has practiced the traditional art of her tribe, the Ndebele, located in northeastern South Africa.
"This was the old way of doing it, when it was done with black and white soil mixed with powder," Mahlangu said, "and you would draw the pattern with your fingers."
Today Ndebele art is colorful with symmetrical patterns. Mahlangu learned to paint from the elders in her home town when she was a little girl. Soon, people realized she was talented. She could draw straight lines without rulers and mastered the colors.
"We mix soil and water to make the pigment," she said. "And we use chicken feathers to paint. We Ndebele don't use rulers.Rulers are in our mind."
One day in the late 1980s, two French researchers came to the village. They noticed her paintings and asked her to travel to France to display her art. That marked the beginning of travels that took Mahlangu to more than 20 countries to exhibit her work.
"I feel very happy that the Ndebele art is getting international recognition," she said, "and I'm glad I contributed to making it happen."
Some years back, Mahlangu opened a guesthouse and a school in her backyard where she mentors young artists.
Nomewa Shongwe has been working with Mahlangu since the age of five. She says Mahlangu's life is inspiring and she wants to follow in her teacher's footsteps.
"I would like to go overseas, earn a living thanks to the art, while carrying the legacy of the Ndebele art and of Madam Esther," Nomewa said.
Mahlangu is prolific and doesn't plan to stop painting anytime soon.
"As an Ndebele people, we grew up with this art. It's in our blood. This is why I continue painting," she said. "Young Ndebele people may not know where life will take them, but the art roots them to their Ndebele culture. It's in my heart and it's in my blood."
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