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She Couldn't Read Or Write, But BMW Hired Her - 5 Interesting Facts About Esther Mahlangu

Updated: Aug 13, 2022

Esther Mahlangu is an artist from the Ndebele tribe of South Africa. She came from humble beginnings with little to no education and grew up to be one of South Africa’s most popular artists and a national treasure. She is proof that the circumstances of your birth do not define how grand your dreams can be, and that it’s never too late to follow those dreams, whatever they may be. See 5 interesting facts about Esther Mahlangu below.

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1) She started painting at the age of 10.

Esther Nikwambi Mahlangu was born on 11 November 1935 on a farm located outside of Middelburg, Mpumalanga, South Africa, and she is from the Ndebele tribe. When she was 10 years old, she used to watch her mother and grandmother painting their house. She really wanted to paint, so when her mother and grandmother were away, she would practice. However, they always scolded her because her lines were not straight. But that didn’t stop Esther. “Every single afternoon when they went to have a nap, I would try to paint. I got into trouble every day until eventually, they realized that in my heart I wanted to paint,” she said. Soon, they gave her time and space to practice, and she was eventually allowed to paint the front of their house.

2) She used chicken feathers and cow dung as tools.

When she first started painting, she used chicken feathers as her brush and made her own natural pigments using cow dung. So she could only paint using yellow, white, ocher, black, and red hues. Later she started using acrylic paint which allowed her to use a wider variety of colors in her art.

3) She was the first person to transfer Ndebele art to canvas.

Esther shook things up at an early age and became the first person to use Ndebele designs on canvas and other mediums, instead of just houses like it was traditionally done. Between 1980 and 1991 she worked at Botshabelo Historical Village's open-air museum. And in 1989, her iconic abstractions drew international attention after her inclusion in the Centre Pompidou’s 1989 group exhibition.

4) She was the first woman to create a BMW art car.

Esther was the first woman and the first African artist to be commissioned to paint a BMW Art Car. Mahlangu has also partnered with brands as varied as Belvedere, British Airways, and Rolls-Royce, and her work is in the collections of celebrities like John Legend, Oprah Winfrey, Trevor Noah, and Swizz Beatz. Her artwork ranges in price from $3,000 to $30,000 and she is often hired to complete mural commissions.

5) She's still alive today (as of the time this article was written) and teaches young artists about Ndebele art.

She now spends much of her time working on community projects in Mabhoko village in Mpumalanga province teaching boys and girls painting and beadwork so they can teach their children one day. She travels around the world to spread her culture globally to ensure the survival of Ndebele art.

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