VMFA’s African galleries are flanked by two large-scale murals by South African Ndebele artist, Esther Mahlangu. In 2014, VMFA commissioned Esther to paint the vibrant murals, which echo the patterns found on Ndebele beaded vestments, jewelry, and the exteriors of their homes. Esther was assisted in completing the commission by her granddaughter, Marriam.
When Esther paints, the vision arises directly in her mind’s eye and calls on experience learned over years and years of painting. There are no preliminary sketches or outlines on the canvas—just paint and an abundance of know-how.
A lively spontaneity results from this approach, revealing the human touch of creation. No straight edge is used, no tape. Just the eye and the hand—although it’s important to mention the acrobatics and exertion also! Esther and Marriam painted standing, sitting, kneeling, and even reclining on scaffolding, ladders, and the floor. All the climbing was physically demanding, but Esther and Marriam performed a delicate ballet, sometimes working right next to one another, sometimes at opposite ends of the canvas, looking over one another’s shoulders, discussing the work and who knows what else about art and life.
See the process unfold before your eyes once again in this time-lapse video.
You can see Esther’s BMW Art Car Number 12 on view now at London’s British Museum as part of its exhibition, South Africa: The Art of a Nation, and you can see Esther’s paintings every day at VMFA.