“Then I Knew I Was Good At Painting: Esther Mahlangu, A Retrospective”

South Africa’s vibrant art scene boasts a multitude of talented voices, and Dr. Esther Mahlangu stands tall amongst them. Her artistic journey, stretching over five decades, is a testament to dedication, cultural pride, and the transformative power of art. To celebrate this remarkable artist, the Iziko South African National Gallery launched “Then I Knew I Was Good At Painting: Esther Mahlangu, A Retrospective” in February 2024.

Curated by Nontobeko Ntombela, this exhibition is a must-see for anyone interested in contemporary art, African traditions, and the power of individual expression.  Running from 18th February until 11th August 2024 at the Iziko South African National Gallery in Cape Town, it delves into Mahlangu’s artistic evolution, showcasing over 100 artworks alongside historical photographs and a documentary film.

A Life Steeped in Art

Mahlangu’s story begins in rural South Africa, where artistic expression is deeply ingrained in the community. Born in 1935, she was surrounded by the Ndebele artistic tradition, known for its bold geometric patterns and vibrant colours. Traditionally, Ndebele women painted the exteriors of their homes, transforming them into canvases that reflected cultural identity and social messages. Mahlangu’s grandmother, Nokentula, was a renowned artist, and it was under her tutelage that young Esther began honing her skills.

The exhibition offers a glimpse into Mahlangu’s early artistic development. We see the influence of her grandmother’s style, characterized by intricate geometric patterns and a focus on symbolism. However, Mahlangu’s artistic spirit wasn’t content with mere replication. The exhibition highlights her gradual experimentation with form and colour, showcasing her unique perspective within the Ndebele tradition.

A Meteoric Rise and Global Recognition

A pivotal moment in Mahlangu’s career arrived in 1989 when she was invited to participate in the prestigious BMW Art Car Project. This project, known for collaborating with renowned artists to create one-of-a-kind art cars, marked a turning point. Mahlangu’s vibrant design on a BMW 525i became a global sensation, propelling her onto the international art scene.  This very car holds a special place in the exhibition, marking its historic return to South Africa after over three decades.

Mahlangu’s success shattered barriers. She became the first woman and the first African artist to be featured in the BMW Art Car Collection. This recognition opened doors to a world beyond her rural village.  She began exhibiting internationally, her artwork finding a place in prestigious museums and private collections worldwide.

A Retrospective that Resonates

“Then I Knew I Was Good At Painting” is more than just an exhibition of artworks; it’s a celebration of a life dedicated to artistic expression.  Curator Nontobeko Ntombela has meticulously arranged the exhibit to showcase the evolution of Mahlangu’s style and thematic concerns. We see a shift from the traditional focus on domestic spaces to a broader exploration of social and historical issues.

Mahlangu’s art, while deeply rooted in Ndebele heritage, isn’t afraid to engage with contemporary themes. The exhibition features pieces that explore the legacy of colonialism, the fight for land rights, and the complexities of South African society.  Through her bold colours and intricate patterns, Mahlangu invites viewers to contemplate these issues, sparking dialogue and reflection.

A Legacy of Inspiration

Dr. Esther Mahlangu’s artistic journey is an inspiration for aspiring artists and a testament to the power of cultural heritage.  “Then I Knew I Was Good At Painting” not only celebrates her achievements but also underscores the importance of artistic expression in preserving traditions and fostering dialogue.

The exhibition is a must-see for anyone visiting Cape Town.  For those unable to travel, the global tour planned after August promises to bring Mahlangu’s vibrant art to a wider audience.  This retrospective ensures that Dr. Esther Mahlangu’s legacy, a beautiful fusion of cultural pride, artistic innovation, and social commentary, will continue to resonate for generations to come.

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