Esther Mahlangu’s first retrospective and her animated BMW art car collaboration

South African artist Esther Mahlangu is a national treasure, her work widely recognised and in private collections worldwide. She works within the centuries-old Ndebele art tradition, practiced by the Ndebele people of South Africa and Zimbabwe. These hand paintings are typically created using delicate feathers and natural pigments. Ndebele artists paint on various surfaces, on walls, houses, clothing, pottery, textiles, and the shapes and colours can carry cultural readings, reflecting social status and spiritual beliefs within the community.

Mahlangu’s work stands out among her contemporaries for its unique, imaginative abstract designs and vivid colour combinations. She works straight from imagination, drafting these precise geometric shapes without the aid of rulers or masking tape, and the thick black lines that are a defining feature in her work echo traditional Ndebele beadwork. Early on in her career, Mahlangu adopted acrylic paint for a more expansive colour palette, and she has worked with wall-size canvas to evolve her designs further.

The artist’s first retrospective, Then I Knew I Was Good at Painting: Esther Mahlangu, opened earlier this month at the Iziko Museums of South Africa in Cape Town with plans to travel to other destinations including the US. It coincides with a colour-shifting art car the artist has created with BMW as part of Frieze LA. Mahlangu famously painted the 1991 BMW 525i Art Car becoming the first female artist and first African artist to take part in the programme. The 2024 i5 Flow Nostokana is an art car for a new era, a moving canvas which simultaneously performs BMW’s latest tech and exhibits the Mahlangus distinctive artwork.

See the art car project here.
And a look at the retrospective here.