CityLife Arts

Esther Mahlangu’s 85 birthday celebration exhibition is a marvel to view

The exhibition can be viewed in person at The Melrose gallery till December 20, after which it can be viewed and bought only online

By Edward Tsumele

Upon entering The Melrose Gallery in northern Johannesburg, one is greeted by spiritually uplifting art works on the walls, from wall to wall, and you cannot mistake who the artists is, especially for those that have n=been following the rise and rise of legendary Ndebele painter Esther Mahlangu.

Her famous geometric patterns on board are a marvel to view, and you cannot fail to pick up the precision with which she holds her paint brush, creating beautiful art that never fails to impress an eye, especially from those with a good eye for beautiful art works.

Even though to an untrained eye, the geometric patterns at fast look the same, they are in fact not, as each one of them is different from the other, and the work itself is a sophisticated narrative of traditional Ndebele culture and way of life.

Admittedly, It is hard, and very hard to decode the message carried by these geometric patterns, but once you spend a little bit of time, you start to realize that there is a narrative behind Mahlangu’s works.

For example one peace has a mosaic of geometric patterns, cows, women doing their traditional chores, chickens running around and well constructed and beautifully painted rondavels. This is a narrative about how a traditional Ndebele household used to be, and this is important in that in modern day South Africa, where such rondavels are slowly being destroyed and replaced by houses that have been designed by modern architects, there shall come a time when to recollect how houses used to be built in traditional societies in general and in Ndebele culture in particular will only exist through the work of artists such as Mahlangu.

This exhibition, which marks Mahlangu’s 85 birthday,  will run at the gallery till December 20, but will continue online carried on Artsy, and for those looking for really good art pieces from this famous artist, they have an option to visit the gallery in person until December 20. After that date one will have to shop online.

Gallery curator Ruzy has this to say about Mahlangu’s current exhibition:

“Esther Mahlangu 85 exhibits how her definitive choices of colour are not abstract, but rather a showcase of a sacred geometry – a language of shapes and colours. Her art is a story laced in the wisdom of her ancestors, depicting the legacy of her mother, and her grandmother before her.

When we think of nature, we don’t tend to think of geometry – but we should. Nature is founded upon fundamental geometric structures. Crafted in conversation with the universe, Esther Mahlangu 85 is an exhibition that celebrates the contemplation of space and colour, both abundant and accented: Africa’s calligraphy. 

Esther Nikwamb iMahlangu hails from Middelburg, Mpumalanga – a place that means ‘where the sun rises’. This complements her artistic aesthetic: that of light, life, and colour. She is an artist whose international renown belies her home and her close-knit community. This community makes use of light that rises and shines, illuminating her generational history of signs and symbols. Her signs point you in the direction you must go. Her symbols reflect who you are. Her ability to work with both to craft universal understanding is utterly timeless. 

It was another artist – Shakespeare – who said “to thine own self be true.” These words ring eternally through time and can be applied to the work of Dr Mahlangu, Mam Esther, Esther Mahlangu, Gogo, Mother, Daughter of Africa. Applying a singular title to her feels false – she embodies each of those titles and more besides. Her work speaks to a deeper understanding of the self to which we must be true. In viewing her art, we ask ourselves how we relate to the art; we seek the truth of the newly formed relationship. Mam Esther invites us to reckon with ourselves by the defying and defining of her own cultural identity. African calligraphy speaks through her, as she creates art that will be renowned. Her self-reliance and ingenuity results in truly emancipated art – respectful of cultural influence yet original in its incarnation.”

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