Born on November 11th, 1935, on a farm near Middelburg, in Mpumalanga Province, South Africa, Esther Mahlangu learned the skill of mural painting from her mother and grandmother. Her family was part of the Ndebele people, a warlike group of Nguni which moved down from the east coast of Africa to the region now occupied by the Kruger National Park. In their society, women competed by decorating their homes with pigments fashioned from different coloured clays, ash, and cow dung. Feathers and bundled twigs were used as brushes.
Mahlangu’s generation in the ‘40s, were the first to use commercially available paint, which added a new intensity to their mural artistry. Also, the possibility of new designs and new substrates opened up. Mahlangu has become known for her signature razorblade design, and she has incorporated many objects and aspects of modern life into her work. As far as substrates go - the sky was, literally, the limit. So far, Mahlangu’s designs have appeared on everything from greeting cards to a BMW 525i and the tailfins of British Airways Boeings! Her contemporaries in these projects were the likes of Andy Warhol, David Hockney and Alexander Calder.
Esther Mahlangu was the very first person to transfer Ndebele mural designs onto canvas, making her art portable, and giving people in galleries all over the world the chance to enjoy this vibrant art style first hand. She was ‘discovered’ in 1989 by a travelling art historian, and invited to participate in a living art exhibition in the Pompidou Centre, Paris. She has never looked back. Mahlangu’s work can now be found in galleries, corporate headquarters and private collections in every corner of the globe. When the artist is not travelling, she returns to live and work quietly in the village of Weltevrede, not far from her birthplace. Here she not only finds the space to develop new artworks, but passes down her philosophy and artistry to the young Ndebele women of her community, preparing them for the future.
The dancing Induna male inspires people to engage in the struggle. Two female figures carry pots of beer, to be drunk when the struggle is over. The women wear traditional blankets, with bands of bright colour. Brown signifies the soil upon which liberation should take place; orange denotes caution; blue – the sky; red – danger, and green - liberation.
The building in which Mandela is imprisoned appears at the bottom of the work. He is kept in the dark, deprived of normal family life. People pray for Mandela’s release. Red is used to show that his life is in danger; the black frame symbolizes his cell on Robben Island.
The knife cuts loose the shackles. A traditional Ndebele flag is held by an old woman and a young girl, representing freedom and rejoicing at the release of Mandela. The sun shines again after dark years in jail, the light represented by a rainbow, promising sunshine after a storm. The central image of liberation is flanked by stylised knife sheaths: the one full, the other empty.
The rupture between white and black people caused by Apartheid has now gone and children of all cultures can play together. The tree in full bloom symbolises renewal and the beginning of a new, prosperous life.
In the centre on top is a new house not painted yet with a woman next to it cooking food for the workers. A big hand joins a small hand to show that we are now uniting as a nation. Black, white, old and young, everybody is planting new crops, preparing food, painting and decorating houses to celebrate new beginnings. (Ndebele traditionally paint fresh decorations onto their houses for special occasions.) The green signals the freedom Mandela bought for our children.