Duke’s Woman Crush Wednesday: Dr. Esther Mahlangu

The 87-year-old South African artist transforms homes and automobiles into extraordinary works of art.

On a farm outside of Middleburg, in what is now the province of Mpumalanga, Esther Mahlangu was born on November 11th, 1935.

A woman of many names is Esther Nikwambi Mahlangu. Esther Mahlangu, Gogo, Mother, Daughter of Africa, Dr. Mahlangu.

She is a South African visual artist of Ndebele descent. She is renowned for her daring, contemporary, large-scale paintings that draw on her Ndebele ancestry.

Following the South Ndebele custom of women and girls painting the exterior of homes, Mahlangu started painting at the age of 10 and was taught the craft of mural painting by her mother and grandmother.

She draws inspiration for her strong, geometric paintings from the designs and color schemes used in Ndebele beadwork and house painting. She has achieved enormous success on the international art markets thanks to her innovative usage of the crafts created by her Ndebele tribe in southeast Africa. She is well known throughout the world for her vivid, striking abstract paintings that draw design cues from Ndebele art.

Mahlangu was the first to translate the classic Ndbele mural painting style on canvas. She painted her geometric designs on a BMW 525i in 1991, joining artists like Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein as the project’s 12th participant and first female.
She displayed her art in the years that followed in nations all over the world, including Mexico, Switzerland, and Australia.

Mahlangu established an art school in the backyard of her home in Mabhoko (Weltevreden), KwaMhlanga district, Mpumalanga Province, with the intention of conserving her traditional legacy. When she’s not traveling for exhibitions, she mentors young artists in the traditional Ndebele design style. She paid for the school herself. Students are taught how to blend colors and create straight lines using their fingers or chicken feathers, freehand and without utilizing any sketches.

She has pieces in collections in South Africa, the US, Japan, Germany, France, and other countries.

In addition to the Mpumalanga Arts and Culture Award, a recognition from the French Ministry of Culture, two awards from Radio Ndebele, and other honors from South Africa and overseas, she received the Order of Ikhamanga, silver class, from the South African government in 2006.

On April 9, 2018, the University of Johannesburg awarded her with an honorary degree (Philosophiae Doctor honoris causa), and in 2019, she was given the first UNHCR South Africa NGO and Multi-Stakeholder Award.


She had three sons with her husband. She later passed away along with her husband and two of her three sons. Before she started painting, she worked as a museum employee at the Botshabelo.

She recently finished designing a limited-edition premium Belvedere Vodka bottle, with 50% of sales going toward the battle against HIV/AIDS in Africa.

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