Why South African artist Esther Mahlangu’s doctorate is a big deal

Picture of South African artist Esther Mahlangu painting
South African artist, Dr. Esther Mahlangu (Credit: Artsy)

In the same month that South Africa lost its most famous female leader in the fight against Apartheid, one of the country’s leading institutions has honoured another icon of the country, artist Esther Mahlangu, with an honorary degree. On the face of it, the honorary doctorate for Esther Mahlangu is noteworthy but hardly remarkable, after all honorary degrees are par for the course as a way of recognising talent and achievement the world over. More to the fact, Mahlangu’s work has long been recognised for its startling brilliance and lucidity, and its commitment to maintaining a long-standing tradition. But Mahlangu’s has done far more than raise the profile of the cultural tradition in which she works, instead she has traced a path for cultural and intellection innovation that this doctorate now acknowledges. The executive dean of the Faculty of Art, Design and Architecture at UJ said that the degree recognised “her legacy as a cultural entrepreneur, skilfully negotiating local and global worlds, and as an educator.”

Mahlangu’s paintings and the wider Ndebele tradition are part of a wider culture of wall art in Southern Africa. The Ndebele tradition of wall painting as a result of social pressures on the Ndebele people in the late 19th century. Prior to and for most of the 1800s, the Ndebele, in South Africa’s Southern Transvaal, were successful landholders, who were displaced by the migration and violent encroachment by Boer settlers on their land. Following these incursions and their subsequent loss of economic power, Ndebele identity came under threat of social disintegration.

According to Adrienne Hoard, Professor of Fine Art and Black Studies, University of Missouri, in the aftermath of their economic dispossession, wall paintings became a way for the Ndebele to assert that they still existed, and like slave songs and African-American quilts, they were symbols of resistance which seemed harmless to their white overlords and oppressors. The influence of centuries of traditions of beadwork inspired the patterns of the paintings, with natural colours being used, and the elements of size, and other design elements being initially more important. In the early 20th century, the tradition was a lot more austere, but from the 1940s with the introduction of acrylic paints, the tradition became a lot more elaborate, and attracted increasing international attention both from collectors and academics. Nevertheless, like many African traditions, it struggled to transcend the perception that it was of primarily anthropological, rather than popular and artistic interest. Esther Mahlangu’s rise to prominence has been part of changing that trend. Mahlangu’s journey to academic recognition has been steady but slow; she first came to international notice when her work was included in the “Magiciens de la Terre” exhibition at Paris’ Centre Pompidou in 1989. Her work was spotted whilst she was an employee of the Botshabelo cultural museum, established to strengthen the historical claims of amaNdebele history, but under the control of a white-dominated city council. Mahlangu’s rise to fame broke the very limited understanding of Ndebele culture as purely of anthropological interest.

Following the Paris exhibition, further recognition followed, with exhibitions and collaborations in Japan and other countries. In 2016 she was a major part of the British Museum’s major exhibition, South Africa: The Art of A Nation. She has received awards from the South African state as well, including The Order of Ikhamanga in 2006, and the Mpumalanga Arts and Culture Award. In that time, Mahlangu’s work has straddled critical as well as popular acclaim, resulting in collaborations with brands as much as cultural institutions. Recently, artist Imani Shanklin Roberts honoured Mahlangu with a mural in NewYork City. The brands she has collaborated with include the sneaker maker Etsy, and BMW, from whom she has twice received commissions. In an era where the appropriation of cultural tradition is an increasingly fraught debate, Mahlangu’s success has provided one model of how an African tradition can be protected, maintained and ensured continuity.

The tension between individuality and community has long been pronounced in African art, but Mahlangu demonstrates that while many African masters may have ended up nameless, individual artistry and ability have been central to the maintenance of traditions. In contrast to the perception of her as a ‘cultural representative’ rather than an individual artist, the art educator and curator writes that Mahlangu very much asserts herself as an individual, distinguishing between her own style and that of other wall painters, such as Francina Ndimande. Nevertheless, Mahlangu has struck a fine balance between her identity as an individual painter, and a commitment to amaNdebele culture. Partly in recognition of this, in 1992, she was recognised as the pre-eminent Ndebele artist by the Ndebele’s traditional authorities. From this position of being culturally authentic but personally innovative, Mahlangu has engaged in a powerful form of cultural entrepreneurship, that offers a prospect of the survival of fragile African traditions. The recognition of her achievement by the University of Johannesburg is important not least because for much of its post-colonial history, the African educational system has often proved a difficult space to celebrate and transform traditional knowledge for the modern age. Mahlangu defies many of the trappings the world, and indeed most western educated Africans, associate with an intellectual. She cannot read or write, nor does she hold any prior degrees; her knowledge was gathered through a systemised, but non-institutional means from her mother and grandmother; yet she has married this knowledge, with a saviness about the global art world that has transformed her fortunes and the traditions of her cultural group. The doctorate is important because despite the acclaim that Mahlangu’s work has found in African and other global circles, the traditions that inform her work remain endangered. It is also significant in the context of Africa’s creative economy; since her rise to prominence, and the emergence of other master painters, the process of passing on the traditions and technique of Ndebele Wall painting have become more formalised. The global attention her work has received highlights the potential of various forms of traditional and indigenous knowledge to be re-invented in a ways that are economically viable. In combining her knowledge of tradition with a savvy interaction with consumer brands and the global art market, Esther Mahlangu is both pioneering and faithful to a culture of changing traditions in response to current circumstances. She also represents very fiercely what it means for Africans to take their own traditions and innovate with them, and that this is not only the capability of an elite western-educated class.

Now Esther Mahlangu’s doctorate is a great thing, but more African institutions also have to find ways of making such innovation and capitalising on African traditions, by Africans a much more frequent occurrence. Very often the assumption is that it is the acquisition of western and institutional knowledge in universities that will help transform Africa, however, increasingly, it is obvious that it will be the ability of Africans to mine their cultural traditions and adapt them to a modern economy that is crucial. The award from the University of Johannesburg recognises that Mahlangu’s artistic productivity is not only aesthetic but also profoundly intellectual.

Dele Meiji is a writer. He writes on arts, culture and politics. www.delemeiji.org

Dele Meiji

Dele Meiji is a writer.