Mahlangu at the Museum

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.”

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