September 1 , 2014. Edited by Janel St. John. South African artist, Esther Mahlangu, is a lady of firsts. She became the first female and first African artist in the BMW Art Car program. Since the 70s, BMW has commissioned esteemed artists, including Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol and Jeff Koons to create art cars to examine the connections between auto technology and cultural trends. Mahlangu created the first BMW African Art Car using the traditional Ndebele art form. Now the artist has been commissioned by the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA) to create two large-scale paintings that will become part of the museum’s permanent collection, marking Mahlangu’s first major North American museum commission.
The Ndebele Art Form
Mahlangu draws freehand, without first measuring or sketching, using luminous and high-contrast vinyl paints. The style is practiced exclusively by the women of her Ndebele tribe, and was passed down to Mahlangu by her mother and grandmother. She was a young girl during the 1940s, when apartheid was formalized as policy within the country.
Ndebele women have always taken great pride in the decoration of their homes, but during the late 19th century, painted designs on home exteriors took on new vigor and importance, becoming a statement of identity and resistance against displacement from the land.
Murals at Esther Mahlangu's home, May 19, 2014. Photo by Richard B. Woodward
Mahlangu is the most renowned of South Africa’s Ndebele people. Developing the art of mural painting from a tradition of designs painted on the exterior of rural homes, she has taken it to major projects created in a global, contemporary art context. The Ndebele painted designs echo the patterns found in their beaded vestments and the jewelry Mahlangu regularly wears in celebration her heritage. At her home and studio in South Africa, Mahlangu is active as an artist and also teaches painting.
VMFA Residency, September 2014
Mahlangu and her team will arrive from South Africa in early September 2014 and will remain in Richmond for a month, working daily on the commission. The artist will create the mural-scale works, each 9 x 15 feet, in the museum’s Evans Court, where they will become a gateway to the African art gallery. The pair of large, vibrantly colored paintings will energize the court as an entry to the collection and will complement the other major murals at VMFA. Being painted on canvas, the works will be permanent and not subject to removal or repainting like some of the artist’s other projects. Mahlangu’s career propelled in 1989 when she was invited to participate in the landmark Magiciens de la Terre exhibition in Paris. The National Museum for Women in the Arts in Washington, DC, displayed Mahlangu’s BMW in 1994 and at the same time commissioned her to paint the façade of an annex building. In 2004, she executed a 78-foot wide mural at the art museum in Bochum, Germany, for the exhibition, New Identities: Contemporary South African Art. Today, the DC and Bochum commissions exist only in documentary form.
Watch Mahlangu work at VMFA
The public is welcome to observe Mahlangu while she works on the paintings. The museum has plans to document her progress. The finished work will be presented to patrons and the public in programs on October 8 and 9. Check VMFA website for public viewing dates.
BMW's first African Art Car
Mahlangu's 1991 BMW 525i was on view in 2011 at the MAD Museum in NYC and at the National Museum for Women in the Arts in Washington, DC. In order to get a feeling for the completely new medium,
she first painted the door of another BMW. Within a week, she transformed the 5 series saloon into a masterpiece of African Ndebele art -
and established herself as the first woman in the list of international Art Car artists.