In 2014, VMFA commissioned South African artist Esther Mahlangu to create two large-scale paintings for the museum’s collection. The most renowned artist among South Africa’s Ndebele people, Mahlangu has developed the art of mural painting from a tradition of designs painted on the exterior of rural homes to projects created in a global, contemporary art context. The works Mahlangu created for VMFA are her only major, permanent commission for a museum in North America.
Not only has Mahlangu’s fortitude and creativity inspired artists around the world, but while painting the murals at VMFA, she also inspired creativity right here in Virginia. Elementary and middle school art teachers developed projects for their classes based on Mahlangu’s colorful Ndebele designs, and this semester at Virginia Commonwealth University, the chair of the Craft/Materials Studies, Sonya Clark, challenged students in an honors course on beading traditions in South Africa to translate the painter’s creativity into beadwork.
Ndebele designs echo the patterns found in the people’s beautifully beaded vestments and jewelry. Bringing this creative concept full circle, the VCU students, employing techniques similar to those used by the Ubhule women in the Midlands of South Africa, turned a photograph of Mahlangu working on the mural into a 16” x 16” piece of beadwork.
Through this work, the art dialogue between South Africa and Virginia continues. Esther’s wand has worked its magic!
The student work will be on view at VMFA, next to Mahlangu’s murals at the entrance of the African Art Gallery, for the rest of the month.
—Richard Woodward, Curator of African Art
For more information about the South African artist’s residency at VMFA, visit https://vmfa.museum/connect/renowned-south-african-artist-painting-now-vmfa/ and https://vmfa.museum/connect/rva-mashup-richmond-street-artists-south-african-artist-esther-mahangu/.
Megan San Pietro