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Homage to greatest living painter Dr Esther Mahlangu

Multi-award winning visual artist Khehla Chepape Makgato argues that Dr Esther Mahlangu who turned 85 this week is more than just a Ndebele artist but a great African who represents the entire race wherever it is in the world.

HOW do we define greatest painter of all times in Africa? Do we believe that we possess the pantheon of skills or know-how of crediting one of us as such?

This post attempts to highlight one of the greatest painters of all time, who still lives among us. From a younger artist to the elder painter with a renowned global recognition. Not only is she technically skilled, but she has made all the important contributions that have changed African culture.

She is considered avant-garde because she has pushed boundaries and made startling innovations through corporate collaborations. Suffice to say we should acknowledge her as a genius during her lifetime as she continues enjoy unparalleled success. 
To be considered one of the greatest painters of all time, one needs to possess a special combination of technical skills, outlandish creative thinking, and determination.

Blended together, all of these attributes produce outstanding works of genius that continue to thrill Dr Esther Mahlangu is one of the greatest painters alive. 
On the occasion of her 85th birthday, I decided to pay the master of our era in the arts and cultural sector, particularly in the painting tradition, a courtesy visit.

The Honorable Doctor of Philosophy as conferred by the University of Johannesburg, Dr. Esther Mahlangu – a humble servant of the African Art Ancestors who continues to take the tradition of Ndebele painting from Siyabuswa (a small town in Mpumalanga, South Africa) to the world. 

The trip to this legendary painter had been long overdue. I had initially planned it with my friend Vuyiswa Matomane a year or so ago. Vagaries of life kept us postponing it till I recently suggested the idea to another friend Thembisile Mahlangu, granddaughter and alumni of Dr Esther Mahlangu, and she made it possible. 

It is not easy to get to visit an artist of her stature because a long queue of fans are waiting for their turn. Fortunately, I finally got the opportunity to drive from Johannesburg to Pretoria to pick up Thembisile and then to Siyabuswa  where this master resides.

I deliberately did not coin or prefix her as ‘Ndebele artist’ like so many publications do when writing about Ngaka (Dr.) Gogo Esther Mahlangu. I decided against perpetuating this artistic delinquency because she is not a regional artist but a global one.

Black artists are always nudged into explaining themselves in order for their work or existence to be considered as a global contribution. Tribalism or regionalism limits the greatness of an individual because of its vastness of myopic lens towards elevation of a genius stature.

She is a rarest of griots in the Southern African region, taking the tradition of painting from generations long gone into global recognition. I find that calling her an isiNdebele artist problematic because, before she is umuNdebele, she is African and represents the entire race wherever it is in the world.

A famed art critic Clement Greenberg once argued that ‘creation of art is possible wherever and is not reflective of a monolithic culture where art is only reflective if change is made in mass.’

No doubt that Dr Mahlangu has advanced the tradition of isiNdebele painting immensely. She has taken what was traditionally isiNdebele house painting as a style of African art practiced by the Southern amaNdebele people of South Africa to the houses and corporate spaces across the world. This tradition is predominantly practiced by the amaNdebele women when painting homes.

The author Khehla Chepape Makgato with renowned painter Dr Esther Mahlangu

It is important to note that Gogo Esther is the recipient of this isiNdebele art painting tradition passed on to her from her grandmother and those who came before them in order to take it to the world. Interestingly, in a world or industry dominated by men, Gogo Esther remains the finest example of how powerful women are and that given a chance, they could disrupt the norm and change the complexion of spectrum they found themselves in. 
The excitement that I had in me for finally paying my dues to her art centre, which should become officially a national heritage site (Esther Mahlangu’s homestead) was beyond me.

Not that it was going to be the first encounter with the icon in person, for I have met her several times at many art events.

Moya mahlong a tau, o ya a swere serumula is a Sepedi adage which loosely translates that he who goes to face a lion, does so with a torch at hand. Of course we had our little gifts for Gogo. We arrived safely at her homestead, which is beautifully decorated with her mural paintings. The homestead spun two spacious yards flanked with few rondavels with a newly built big rondavel structure sponsored by BMW.

She had just completed about 10 medium sized canvasses, which her grandson Isaac Mokwana was taking for delivery to a client.
At the front gate, Gogo Esther walked slowly to toward us and spoke with Thembisile in IsiNdebele for a moment before the gate was opened. I was amazed how gracefully she is aging.

She led us into a big rondavel shelter and we sat down with her and exchanged pleasantries and just in time Isaac came through. I personally felt honored to share a moment at the feet of one of the greatest painters I know. 

She requested him to give us a special tour around the homestead. After the tour by Isaac, we presented our gifts to Gogo Esther which lightened up her face, brimful of wisdom.

She said to me in isiNdebele: “May God expand your territory of greatness that you already have.”

I had purchased her original painted, signed and dated pot plant functional art piece to mark this visit. 
After spending over two hours with the Master, we bade her goodbye. About 40km drive away, a phone rang and guess who it was?

Gogo Esther on the other end. She called her cell phone which I mistakenly took with me when moving couches during our photo shoots. I took her phone because it looked like my other non-camera device.

I answered and quickly gave it to Thembisile because I was driving. We had to make a u-turn to take her phone back. Perhaps the African gods of the arts wanted me to lay my eyes on the master just once more time. It was nevertheless the most memorable visit for me. 

Dr Esther Mahlangu on a recent visit by deputy minister in the presidency Thembi Siweya. Photo: GCIS

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