When Art Car 12, 1991 was unveiled, South Africa was poised at the edge of a globalised market. At the time, the cultural boycott was still in full swing. Prior to South Africa’s “coming out”, there was an entire forgotten generation of South African artists who experienced the worst of cultural isolation during apartheid, and were written out of the picture.
One whiff of the scent of freedom when Nelson Mandela was released in 1990 and all the luxury brands began clamouring to access Africa's richest market. BMW, however, had long since openly operated in the country, and the art car project inadvertently smoothed over a sleek transition from an old Zuid-Afrika luxury brand to a new rainbow-nation version.
Mahlangu has a tiny frame, her neck stretched long and regal by rows of copper and brass chokers; metal rings encase her lower arms and legs along with chunky beaded bracelets and anklets. She wears a beaded goatskin cape or linaga, and a five-fingered ijogolo apron with beaded Isigolwana rings and a blanket wrapped shawl-like around her chest. Her hair is cropped short, as is the tradition for amaNdebele women.
Mahlangu speaks Ndebele and Afrikaans, and is clearly comfortable with being on view. Between 1980 and 1991, she was a resident at the Botshabelo Historical Village, an open-air museum which presents Ndebele culture to visitors. “Their appearance is as striking and eye-catching as their works of art,” according to the South African tourism website. These “historical villages” were first opened by the Transvaal Provincial Museum Services to promote tourism internationally, as well as to present the nationalist government’s apartheid policy as being successful.
According to art historian Annette Loubser, “There were other women in this traditional cultural village, but Esther was noticed by tourists and future patrons. She was clearly talented, different. Her dignity and passion have held her together despite attempts at commodification.”
Painting as a modern, commercially determined practice hardly existed in Ndebele culture before the 1990s. Until then, Ndebele women in the area were primarily bead workers, who made Ndebele crafts. Esther Mahlangu pioneered the artistic transference of Ndebele designs, then virtually exclusively reserved for wall paintings, onto canvas. Tradition and commercialism frequently collide in Mahlangu's narrative: her transfer of works onto canvas came from her exposure to foreign tourists. She is an artist who adapted her art to meet new market trends and audiences.