ESTHER MAHLANGU

Grandmother of African art finds unlikely partner in war on Aids. South Africa’s leading tribal painter Esther Mahlangu has joined a luxury vodka brand to raise money for HIV prevention.

By Tracy McVeigh

On the outskirts of a sprawling low compound stands a sun-bleached, hand-painted billboard. It welcomes visitors to the village and proclaims: “Esther is here … First lady to travel over sea.”

Esther Mahlangu is indeed here. She is sitting, legs outstretched, on a reed mat lain across a mud floor, painting careful black lines on a rough piece of paper with her chicken-feather paintbrush, inside an open-sided thatched-roof hut. This is the classroom where she teaches young girls, just as her mother and grandmother taught her “long, long ago”, she says.

At 82 years old, Mahlangu is not only an artist and teacher, but one of the last skilled custodians of the traditions of the Ndebele people. Her painting uses the pigments of her surroundings: the black comes from the mud in the river; the grey from a tree leaf pounded into paste; and there are five colours to be extracted from the African soil nearby. Shop-bought paints also fill giant well-used pots. She is especially fond of an azure, which can be seen in her wild geometric patterns that adorn every cow dung-plastered surface of the surrounding huts, walls and houses.

One of the most famous artists in South Africa, Mahlangu is a living tourist attraction, although visitors are few and far between in this far-flung village, two hours’ drive from the nearest city. And she is indisputably the most honoured gogo – Zulu for grandmother – of the Ndebele who remain in the Mpumalanga homelands.

The tribe’s numbers have dwindled as young people have departed to look for work in the big South African cities. The scourges of poverty, malaria, Aids and TB have also taken their toll. Mahlangu herself, a widow, has outlived all three of her sons and three of her grandchildren. However, she sees the real risk as the extinction of her tribe’s traditions, and it is that which has driven this little old lady to travel the world pushing Ndebele art internationally, in the hope of making the next generation at home also see its worth.