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South African Artist Breaks Cultural Barriers With Patterned Paintings

Esther Mahlangu creates special edition work in the fight against HIV/AIDS.

When renowned South African artist Esther Mahlangu arrives at the Museum of Arts and Design (MAD) in Manhattan, she's only had a few hours to rest since her 15 ½ hour flight from Johannesburg the night before. At 80 years old, Mahlangu is accustomed to international journeys and to sharing her culturally significant work with people around the world. Mahlangu is in NYC — and then LA, Chicago, DC, and Atlanta — as a representative of the (BELVEDERE) RED campaign.  She created original work inspired by a set of values for the campaign she developed in partnership with John Legend— security, support, change and unity — to adorn special edition Belvedere bottles. Fifty percent of the profits from these special edition bottles go to the Global Fund to fight and eliminate the transmission of HIV/AIDS.


Mahlangu hails from the Mpumalanga province in South Africa. And if not for her work, the international art world might not know anything about the creative traditions of her tribe, the Ndebele. Older generations of women began to teach Mahlangu how to paint directly onto houses and to produce intricate beadwork when she was 10 years old. This tradition is passed down only to the girls of the Ndebele. In 1986, French curator André Magnin was on a research trip to South Africa when he was stunned by the hand-painted homes with geometric patterns in the village and asked to be introduced to Mahlangu. Magnin invited the artist to travel to Paris to be showcased in the 1989 contemporary art exhibition Magiciens de la Terre.

Since her arrival on this global art stage, Mahlangu has adapted the bold colors, strong graphics, and freehand style of the Ndebele to canvas and other facades like buildings and automobiles. In 1991, she was selected to paint an original piece on a car as part of the ongoing BMW Art Car Project. Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, and Jeff Koons are also in that exclusive club. Her work adorns public and private collections around the world, and admirers have been able to come and watch Mahlangu as she creates commissioned paintings.

Today, she seems unfazed by the spectators as she works at the MAD in New York. She uses a chicken feather to paint on the canvas in front of her. Everyone else is having trouble, but Mahlangu's lines are impeccably straight. Her long-time friend André Magnin sits to the side and watches her work with the rest of us; he has flown in to surprise her.


A small group of participants in a MAD Museum studio are here to learn the traditional paint techniques Mahlangu learned from her mother and grandmother as a girl. As she dips a chicken feather into black paint and brushes it to a canvas, Mahlangu answers a question from one of the students. The man wants to know what commonalities the artist has found among the residents of the many countries she's visited. When Mahlangu speaks, her grandson Isaac translates: "What makes people unite? It's love." Mahlangu still lives in the village where she was born. Between trips like these, she teaches art to the girls of her tribe at the school she founded in the backyard of her home. The various canvases Mahlangu is making at each stop on this (BELVEDERE) RED tour will collected and eventually be hung at the school she teaches. It is a fit display for an artist whose legacy is one of service and awareness.

Learn more about Esther Mahlangu and the (BELVEDERE) RED campaign here.


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