Cultural activist and teacher, Esther Mahlangu is a living legend.
If you are looking for any steady hand to color and beautify the world, you need not look farther than Siyabuswa, South Africa. There you will find Gogo Esther Mahlangu. She is Siyabuswa itself – an embodiment of people’s culture and a master free-hand artist. At 84 years old, she has one of the most experienced, cultured, and talented hands of any generation. In global art circles, she is perhaps South Africa’s first citizen and most valuable ambassador of the Ndebele culture and South Africans in general. A natural master of geometry, and the president of her art-world.
By Themba ka Mathe
To locate Gogo Esther – now an honorary doctor is an art of deliberation and negotiation. A strip of the Moloto Road, there are a couple of short lefts to her home in Kwa-Mhlanga that hold the key to the treasures and sites of uniqueness to the Ndebele people and culture that is manifest in colorful mural paintings, rondavel huts and beaded artifacts. To the right, thick sands turn into eroded reddish and black clay, further down the meandering country the barren calcified rocks lead to eKosini. (A place housing the royal Mahlangus homesteads.)
An intersection points to the peaceful dusty land of Mthambothini, where the roads are divided by low fences and sandy sinkholes – pitch dark in the night and only lit up by the occasional stars and Gogo Esther’s colorful house. A monumental heritage site of sorts, Gogo Esther, has turned her homestead into a vibrant tourism destination, mini art school, and a cultural museum replete with a curio shop filled up with crafts, beadwork jewelry, artifacts, and gifts. “It fills me with joy when I see my culture and traditions being exposed to the world. I have made it my lifelong mission to champion that…. I don’t want to see whom we are dying,” laments Gogo Esther. One third, a cultural activist, one third a wisdom keeper and another third a teacher, Gogo Esther, sits heavy-hearted on her cow-dung painted stoep right in the middle of the main traditional rondavel.
A petite figure almost submerged in colorful and huge Ndebele traditional outfits, she laments the loss of respect amongst the youth, fear of language extinction and cultural exploitation, as well as the gains of her efforts at cultural promotion and heritage preservation initiatives. “Urbanisation has robbed young girls from learning about their heritage and cultural expressions. They get into marriage life without being taught how to paint their homes, or even taking care of them by their matriarchs.” Gogo Esther grew up watching her mother and grandmother painting their home in response to and as a tribute to momentous life events such as births, deaths, initiations or weddings in traditional Ndebele setting of the Eastern Transvaal. “Learning to paint was the equivalent of going to school in our time. You see, you got to go to school and even university. That didn’t exist for us. So we painted. It was how we showcased the brilliance of our minds and our love and respect for our homes.” As early as ten years old, she had already picked up her chicken feathers and dipped them into ochre, cow dung, and traditional soil paint to beautify the back walls of her family home. Now, at 84 years old, Dr. Esther Mahlangu’s laughter has become bolder and younger in tone. Her voice – churning out few syllables, is surprisingly a duck-like softness. The lines on her deeply furrowed face tell a tale of sage wisdom from many miles traveled, and pain of loss. The firstborn of a small-scale farmer’s nine children, Gogo Esther grew up a simple traditional woman just like her mother and grandmother before her. She still reels from memories of losing all three of her sons and husband. It is mostly for this reason that she surrounds herself with hoards of children, as a consolation, but also as a deeply ingrained fear that “once the youth are not taught their language and culture, all will be lost.”
The other lines that leave an indelible impression in the world’s minds are the ones that she draws every day using chicken feathers. These unique and precise geometrical lines that she draws like a make-up artist would paint eyeliner on a face have earned her a string of accolades and honors including the presidential order of the Ikhamanga, two honorary doctorates, and several awards. Gogo Esther has exhibited his work in major galleries and museums all over the world – London, Paris, New York, Munchen, Bilbao, Monaco, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Tokyo, Belgrade, Washington, DC, and beyond – and lectured in nearly as many. On conferring Mahlangu with an honorary doctorate in Fine Arts, University of Johannesburg’s vice chancellor and principal professor Tshilidzi Marwala recognized Gogo Esther as an icon “worthy of being looked upon to by the next generation of creatives.” “She is a living example of how authentic African knowledge systems can be articulated meaningfully and sustainably.” Her international career took off in Paris of 1986, in front of television cameras, the press corps and thousands of spectators who had come to see her paint. Two months earlier, she had been discovered by two French researchers who traveled the world, documenting traditional arts. They were mesmerized by the then 51-year-old’s eye-catching homestead with its vibrant exterior decorations. She was commissioned to replicate it at the Pompidou Centre in Paris. “I wasn’t discovered, they found me painting, and they took me because they loved what I was painting and they wanted me to teach them the measurements, lines, calculations, raw materials we use to make the paint and mostly the story behind uMgwalo (paintings). They also liked what I wore” she says, smiling.
Before then, Gogo Esther lived and worked at the Botshabelo Historical Village, an open-air museum of Ndebele culture between 1980 and 1991. In a career spanning more than 50 years, she has worked with major corporations like BMW, Tiger Brands, Fiat, Belvedere Vodka, and world-renowned artists like Andy Warhol and celebrities including John Legend. She has traveled the world on commissions to design hotels, churches, offices, houses, and museums. “It gives me an opportunity to spread Ubuntu. I got to travel the world just by doing something I do out of love.” Her power has been her ability to keep herself relevant by adapting her talents and skills, balancing the demands of commercial art while enjoying the pleasures and freedoms of traditional art.
Gogo Mahlangu is a sensation wherever she goes, be it at home in KwaMhlanga where she hosts tourists and the underprivileged alike or too far corners of the world. “I love it when I see the world appreciating our culture. I have turned places far away into traditional Ndebele areas though no Ndebeles are living there.” Well-traveled contemporary South African artist Senzeni Marasela describes her as a brilliant colorist and pattern maker, whose work finds strength in the repetition of the ever-evolving Ndebele patterns. “She is an innovative and adaptable artist who is working in the present, but using the skills and techniques passed down for generations. Her legacy will live on for much longer.” Gogo Esther is still holding it strong – the feather, artistic expressions, and traditions. Away from the international limelight, she turns her passions to cultural tourism, preservation of traditions and transference of her painting skills as well. “I have always had the calling to teach the science and significance of Ndebele painting, and why we paint.”