Originally published by Richmond Arts Review on October 8, 2014.
Evans Court is a space of transition in the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. In the style of colonial Renaissance courts with stately, classical columns and serene atmosphere, the court operates as a transitional space, one that connects the Tapestry Hall with the African Art Galleries while often displaying small, rotating exhibitions. It is in this court that Ndebele artist Esther Mahlangu has been working on museum commission, climbing up on scaffolding several feet high. At 78 years old, she ascends the steps with minimal effort, and paints her murals with calm ease. She is covered in colors, from the beadwork bands on her head to the robes of bold yellow, red, black, and green that drape her shoulders, to the gold bangles on her arms and legs, and not least, her white shoes embroidered with intricate beaded patterns. She displays determined focus as she steadies her arm to paint another straight line—without using a ruler—and chuckles with her granddaughter and assistant, Marriam.
Visitors to the museum during the month of September had the chance to observe this daily activity on the only major permanent commission of Esther’s work in North America. Among cameras taking time-lapse photos and stanchions blocking off the work space, Esther and her granddaughter Marriam Mahlangu along with translator and assistant Grace Masango have been working on two monumental paintings on canvas. These works will become part of the museum’s permanent collection and a bright, geometric announcement to those walking by that there is more to be seen in the neighboring galleries.
Born in 1935 in the Mpumalanga Province in South Africa, Esther, like most Ndebele girls, began learning the arts of painting and beadwork as a young girl.
“I was born where painting is a part of every day life,” Esther says, “I loved painting even when I was still young and growing. I learned designs from my mother and grandmother in the afternoons after school.”
Painting for the Ndebele culture is a creative, finely-tuned skill that is taught over many years, thought it is not an alternative hobby. Painting and beadwork are a way of life, the visual identity of the Ndebele people, and women in the tribe are achieved in their roles as cultural creators. It isn’t a decision, so to speak, rather it is a lifestyle.
Esther leans forward, animated and full of pride, speaking quickly. Grace translates, “This is the most important advantage of painting: you must paint your house when you first marry. It shows how well you were taught.”
Esther believes intensely in the importance of painting, and in sharing her paintings with the world. When she isn’t working on projects internationally, she spends time teaching painting to students at her school in South Africa. Marriam, her granddaughter, was one of them.
“I want all children to continue painting,” she says. “Some have travelled with me or on their own to paint in other countries.”
She adds, “I do not want my culture to disappear.”
A fascinating ambiguity in Esther’s paintings is that they are contemporary reinterpretations of a long-standing visual cultural tradition. What began as the Ndebele painting the exterior of their homes as a method of self-identification—and historically, as an act of resistance to the tribe’s many cultural oppressors—became a world-wide identifier for the Ndebele. Her paintings are at once old and new, traditional and contemporary. The designs she paints onto the canvases here are reminiscent by their very nature; there is no doubt of the apparent ties between historical Ndebele beadwork and painting and Esther’s current work. (She points to her clothing and jewelry to show the often direct match in patterns.)
However, while firmly rooted in the tradition of her people, Esther is, in a way, reinterpreting tradition through her adaptations. Instead of painting with sand and clay, commercial paints charge her works with intensely bright hues that were not achieved before. She uses traditional tools such as chicken feathers and a root commonly referred to as baboon’s tail, though her painting supports reflect a modernized world—she paints on just about anything, from canvases to household objects to a BMW art car, a promotional art program in which Esther participated in 1991, helping to boost her renown across the globe).
A common inquiry for viewers of Mahlangu’s work is, “What does it mean?”, a fair question considering many of the objects in the African galleries are ceremonial in nature, decorated with symbols indicating initiations, rites of passages, or life cycles. Many anthropologists have been thrown off-scent when interviewing the Ndebele people regarding this matter, illustrating a certain level of privacy that holds importance to the tribe. The special connection between mothers and daughters as this tradition is shared among generations is also of note. This culture, and many like it, has secrets it prefers to keep. The nature of Esther’s success as an artist exists in a fluid manner in which she is proud to spread the Ndebele culture in a visual sense, yet does not feel compelled to necessarily reveal each of its mysteries to viewers.
Despite the element of privacy, when asked what she hopes her viewers gain from looking at her paintings, Esther responds simply with a smile: “Happiness.” And her works in Evans Court achieve just that.
Come see paintings by Esther Mahlangu in Evans Court at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. The museum is open 10 am to 5 pm, 365 days a year, and admission is free. For more information about the artist or her museum commission, please visit http://www.vmfa.museum/