South African Artist Esther Mahlangu Awarded Honorary Doctorate by the University of Johannesburg

Esther Mahlangu at VMFA

Esther Mahlangu at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. Photo by Travis Fullerton

Esther Mahlangu, whose dazzling, mural-size paintings provide a gateway to the VMFA African art galleries, has just been awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Johannesburg for “her legacy as a cultural entrepreneur and educator, skillfully negotiating local and global worlds.” Dr. Mahlangu, the most renowned artist of South Africa’s Ndebele people, 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. Ndebele painted designs echo the patterns found in their beautifully beaded vestments and jewelry, such as Mahlangu wears as an expression of her heritage.

In 2006 she was awarded The Order of Ikhamanga (Silver) by the South African government, which is issued by the President for the recipient’s invaluable contribution to the arts, culture, literature, journalism, music, and sports.

Now 82, Mahlangu came to international prominence in 1989 when she was invited to participate in the landmark Magiciens de la Terre exhibition at the Pompidou Center in Paris. In 1991, BMW commissioned her to paint a sedan in their Art Car program. In 2017 she was honored in New York with a street mural painted by Imani Shanklin Roberts in Ndebele style on a car-free segment between West Broadway, Varick, and Franklin Steets.



Paintings by Esther Mahlangu at the entrance to VMFA's African art galleries.

Paintings by Esther Mahlangu at the entrance to VMFA’s African art galleries. Photo by David Stover, VMFA.

Esther Mahlangu painting at VMFA.

Esther Mahlangu painting at VMFA. Photo by David Stover, VMFA.

The artist's home in South Africa.

The artist’s home in South Africa. Photo by Richard B. Woodward, VMFA.

The VMFA paintings are her most significant and permanent museum commission. To create them, Mahlangu was in residence at the museum for six weeks in 2014, working on the nine by fifteen foot canvases in their final position by the African gallery. The National Museum for Women in the Arts in Washington, DC, commissioned her to paint the façade of their annex building in 1994 when they also displayed her BMW. In 2004 she executed a 78-foot wide mural in Bochum, Germany, for the exhibition, New Identities: Contemporary Art from South Africa. Today, the Washington and Bochum works are retained only in documentary form.

After the doctorate was awarded, Mahlangu spoke from the podium, retelling her childhood desire to paint and saying that preserving the fragile Ndebele culture has been important to her. Dr. Mahlangu then exhorted the much younger students to value their traditions and heritage so they will be passed along to their children and grandchildren.

By Richard B. Woodward, Curator of African Art