It certainly was a strange decision to commission an unknown woman, from an unknown town in Mpumalanga, practising an unknown traditional art form to paint an art car. But it proved to be the right decision, as Mahlangu was later again commissioned to paint the tail of a British Airways Boeing.
How did all of this come about? She was born in 1935 and grew up on a farm near Middelburg in Mpumalanga.When she was 10 years old, her mother and grandmother trained South African artist Esther Mahlangu in the traditional art of Ndebele wall painting. According to custom, when Esther reached puberty, she was isolated from the community for a few days to learn the exquisite Ndebele craft of beading. During this customary ritual, it became evident that Esther had a natural talent and she started to flourish as an artist. She decided to embrace her traditional roots and dedicated her whole life to the development, promotion and evolution of Ndebele painting. Her work has been testimony to the integrity and sensitivity with which she promoted her people's culture.
In Ndebele wall painting, the walls of a house are firstly finished in cow dung. Then tradition dictates designs painted on these walls with coloured clay. Ndebele artist Esther Mahlangu started training in the 1940's when modern paints were introduced into these art forms, as well as the use of geometrical shapes that has now become synonomous with this art tradition.
These influences inspired her and also caused her to experiment widely with new techniques, materials and colours in her subsequent work. She still uses the traditional feathers and bundled twigs as brushes.
Esther Mahlangu has exhibited locally and abroad in Australia, America, Japan and in many European countries.
She also taught many young women the secrets of the Ndebele painting tradition, ensuring the preservation of her culture.