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When was the last time you noticed an artist collaborating with a brand? A few names might come to mind right away: Jeff Koons and Dom Perignon, Kanye West and Takashi Murakami, Jay-Z and Marina Abramovic, or the numerous companies that have licensed the work of dead artists and put it on merchandise for sale. What do you think of these kinds of collaborations? Are they legitimate artistic productions, or cash grabs banking on name recognition? The artist whose work I’ll be discussing in this episode has collaborated multiple times with brands, but we’re not going to focus too much on those works. Rather, we’ll be focusing on one of her non-commercial works, an untitled painting on canvas from 2008. Esther Mahlangu entered the broader contemporary art scene beginning in the 1980s, when she was asked by Paris’s Centre Pompidou to replicate the mural on the outside of her house in a village in South Africa. She subsequently branched out from the mural painting that was a traditional part of her Ndebele culture, and shifted to painting canvases, among other objects. Her painting Untitled, 2008, viewable on Artsy.com, is something of a departure from the rest of her primarily abstract body of work, and includes two figures wearing shirts that depict the South African flag. In this work the old and the new, the traditional and the modern, the ethnically specific and the nationalistic, blend together, and prompt us to think about the relationships between them, as well as a few key questions. When an artist known for abstract work incorporates figures into that work, what might that signify? How does Mahlangu’s entanglement with commerce and tourism affect how we view this work? Hopefully we’ll be able to address these questions, and maybe bring up some more, in the course of this episode.
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Now, without further ado, grab your chicken feathers, your soccer jersey, and your BMW and let’s talk about Esther Mahlangu’s Untitled, 2008. (Beat) I promise that list of things will make sense by the end of the episode.
A description of Esther Mahlangu’s Untitled, 2008. Acrylic on canvas, approximately 24 by 31.5 inches. At each side of the canvas is a triangle, its point facing inward, outlined in black. Within that triangle is a smaller blue triangle, also outlined in black, with an even smaller triangle, facing the other way on top of a rectangle, inside of it. The rectangle has a smaller rectangle of pink within it. At the center of the top of the canvas is a black rectangle with a design of lines and dots in white inside it, the lines looking like squared-off squiggles further subdivided at points into small rectangles. At the bottom of the canvas is a similar black rectangle with a white design, this time two almond shapes filled with diagonal lines, with dots above and below where the almonds’ points touch. In two diagonal rows crossing the canvas in between the blue triangles and black rectangles are circles with diamonds or squares inside of them. Some of them are black and purple with a green or blue square bordered with white inside, some are gray and green with a pink square bordered with white inside, some are blue and green with a yellow square bordered with white inside, and some are alternative combinations of those colors. Interrupting the line of circles going from bottom left to upper right is a figure with black skin and gray torn pants that extend to their knees. Their shirt is the South African flag. They appear to be standing, although they are facing downward, which perhaps implies jumping. Their head touches the central circled square. Below that central circled square is another similar figure, this time upright and facing right, their head barely touching the circle. All of this appears on a bright white background. There is no shading or sense of setting. In the bottom left hand corner, in black, the painting is signed “Esther Mahlangu 2008.”
Esther Mahlangu is a member of the Ndebele, one of a number of groups of people indigenous to South Africa. When South Africa was still a colony, the Ndebele were overcome by the European-descended Boers, who took their land and forced them to work it as indentured servants, according to art professor Adrienne W. Hoard. The subjugated Ndebele developed their own style of mural painting, decorating their homes and other buildings with it as, quote, “guideposts for indigenous persons passing farm buildings set far back from the road. They announced: ‘We are Ndebele. Ndebele live here.’” End quote. Ndebele painters, usually married women, used mostly natural pigments until the 1940s, when acrylics were introduced to South Africa by the French, acrylics being significantly more durable and not in need of frequent resurfacing unlike natural pigments such as ochres. Most Ndebele murals are abstract, even, Hoard notes, “when they are representing realistic, natural, or manufactured items.” Over time, Ndebele wall paintings have become increasingly influenced by and have adapted to changes in their immediate community and the world more broadly. And perhaps the only Ndebele painter who has not only adapted, but integrated themselves into modern culture and economics, is Esther Mahlangu.
As I mentioned earlier, Mahlangu was quote-unquote “discovered” in the 1980s, and there seems to be some difference of opinion as to who exactly “discovered” her, with an article in The Observer mentioning a, quote, “passing French art dealer,” end quote, in 1986, and University of South Africa Professor Chris J. van Vuuren stating that she, quote, “was employed at the Ndebele Museum at Botshabelo near Middelburg as a mural artist. In 1982 the French Embassy in Pretoria contacted [van Vuuren] with the idea to commission a Ndebele mural artist to visit France…With the assistance of the curator and family Esther volunteered…” End quote. Regardless of who exactly “discovered” Esther Mahlangu, the Centre Pompidou commission was a breakout project that launched her onto the global art world stage when the exhibition debuted in 1989. Just a few years after the Pompidou commission, in 1991, Mahlangu collaborated with BMW on a so-called “Art Car,” one of several that BMW collaborated with artists to make. Other Art Car collaborators include Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, and Robert Rauschenberg—Mahlangu was the first woman and the first African to work on the project. Art historian and Head of Cultural Engagement at BMW Thomas Girst specifically mentions Nelson Mandela being freed from prison in 1990 as a contributing factor to choosing Mahlangu to work on the 1991 art car. Mandela’s freedom and the end of official apartheid in Mahlangu’s home country probably also contributed to Mahlangu’s success more generally, and the impressive CV she was building so quickly no doubt was also a factor in other corporate commissions coming calling. Her official biography from The Melrose Gallery notes that, quote, “by 1990 she had begun to receive invitations to paint murals in public spaces and to participate in numerous exhibitions across more than 12 countries.” End quote. Her designs appeared on the tails of British Airways planes in 1997; in 2007 she painted a Fiat 500 for the exhibition “Why Africa?” in Turin, Italy; in 2016 she teamed up with Belvedere Vodka to design a bottle for their RED campaign, with proceeds going to the fight against HIV/AIDS.
All this corporate stuff feels pretty far removed from the two-foot-wide painting I began this episode with. So let’s zero in on Untitled, 2008. At first you might not make anything of the triangles and rectangles and circles, and you might be confused by the presence of figures. The more I looked at Mahlangu’s painting, the more it seemed to me to be an abstracted interpretation of a soccer field. It’s unclear exactly where the goals might be, but the two diagonal lines of patterned circles give me the impression of a soccer ball ricocheting across the pitch, being passed in between the two figures, and perhaps even head butted by one of them. The South African flags the two figures wear as shirts might very likely be jerseys, though their torn gray knee-length pants are not exactly regulation.
Soccer is huge in South Africa—as it is in a lot of countries that aren’t the United States—so it makes sense that the subject might appear in a painting by a South African artist. The timing of this painting makes the connection to soccer even more potent: two years after this image was created, South Africa hosted the 2010 FIFA World Cup, and the word “vuvuzela” entered the global lexicon. As the encyclopedia South African History Online details, when South Africa’s selection as the 2010 host was announced in 2004, quote, “Nelson Mandela wept tears of joy [saying]: ‘I feel like a young man of 15…’” End quote. This was a huge deal for South Africans, not least because the history of sports in South Africa is so racially fraught. As SAHO notes, quote, “eventually British ideas about race, class, gender, and empire led to the appropriation of rugby and cricket by Whites, and football and boxing by Blacks.” End quote. As historian Derek Charles Catsam wrote in 2010, this racial division between sports, and the politicization of rugby and football specifically, still persists in some forms regardless of the formal end of apartheid policies:
“For many millions of non-white South Africans [in 1995], the Springboks [South Africa’s previously all-white rugby team] represented Afrikaner white supremacy at its apex. Most black Africans despised rugby, and those who did not despise it supported any team except the Springboks…. Even today, rugby itself is far from a multi-racial panacea…the country’s black masses have not yet fully embraced the professional manifestation of the sport. There is a consistent clamor to eliminate the Springbok logo that is still hated in many corners of the country, and millions still prefer to see the Springboks throttled when they play international matches.”
“The problems that football confronts in South Africa mirror rugby’s dilemmas. As much as rugby has always been ‘a white sport,’ football has long been the favorite sport of the country’s black majority. Just as black South Africans have often rejected rugby…many fear that whites have rejected local football. White South African fans of football seem to have rejected the national team, Bafana Bafana, for other teams…. Even fewer whites who care about football pay attention to the country’s Premier Soccer League (PSL), preferring instead Europe’s elite leagues….With the country hosting the 2010 World Cup, football is best seen as a lens through which to examine sporting nationalism—the creation or buttressing of national identity through sports. President Zuma has been clear in his belief that the World Cup serves as an opportunity to ‘renew our commitment to national unity and nation building,’ calling 2010 the most important year, since 1994, in the country’s history.”
Just as sports-based nationalism comes out to play in the Summer and Winter Olympics, it does the same in football, rugby, and other international competitions, with the added issue in South Africa, and many other places, of a history of racism. So how does knowing about this affect how we see Esther Mahlangu’s painting? Mahlangu’s football pitch feels playful, joyous, and also seems notably placeless. Except for the South African flag jerseys, there are no other indicators of specific setting. The shapes and figures occupy a blank white ground, not a lush green field, and there don’t appear to be any fans in the stands or even more than the two players depicted. The flag shirts give a sense of officially sanctioned play, but all these other elements, including the torn gray knee-length pants, give the sense of a pick-up game. It engages with South African nationalism and football without engaging with the massive event looming large in South African football’s near future at the time of the painting’s creation. This is sport stripped down to its essentials: a ball, two players, and a general idea of where the goal might be. Even the fact that the players are wearing the same uniform isn’t an issue—it’s two friends playing a pick-up game, and there aren’t any spectators for whose benefit the opposing teams should be distinguished. This painting puts the “play” back in football, not even indicating whether one person is winning or losing, just focusing on the pattern of the ball as it ricochets around the pitch, and the angles of the players’ bodies as they struggle for control of it.
In Untitled, 2008 we can see both the local and the national occurring simultaneously, within the very ethnically specific framework of Mahlangu’s traditional Ndebele painting. Even more dualities are present in the very materials of the painting: acrylic and canvas, both nontraditional materials for Ndebele painting, and yet executed in a traditional style, and perhaps, though we can’t be certain of this, with the traditional Ndebele chicken-feather brush that Mahlangu favors. The blending of modernity and traditionalism that is apparent in Esther Mahlangu’s biography is also present here, and yet it isn’t contradictory, by any means. It’s adaptive.
Mahlangu’s adaptive approach to artworks like Untitled, 2008 is in part reflective of exactly what it takes to succeed as a contemporary artist in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Murals may be the traditional format of Ndebele painting, but it’s not easy to make a living off mural painting alone, even doing it at prestigious venues like the Centre Pompidou. Untitled, 2008 is much, much smaller than the wall of a house, and is therefore much more easily transported and much easier to purchase and integrate into a given collection. The media—acrylic on canvas—have been proven to be relatively durable and long-lasting, which increases the painting’s value as an investment. At the time of its production, Untitled, 2008 was extremely topical in part because of its flag-clad figures, and yet abstraction as an artistic approach also contains a sense of timelessness because it appears at first glance to be non-specific in terms of place and time.
And yet, despite Esther Mahlangu’s adaptation to mainstream art techniques and collaboration with extremely modern brands, she seems to take a fairly conservative approach to the preservation of her village’s culture and art, as exemplified by the following excerpts from interviews with The Observer and with Artsy in 2016:
“This culture [Ndebele culture] must not die,” she said. “Our young people don’t wear the clothes or respect their forefathers, the girls have hair extensions and wear western clothes. This does not make me feel comfortable. They are vandalising [sic] our traditions. This is why I talk to them, try to motivate them with my travels and teach them too about AIDS.”
“Sadly there are very few traditional Ndebele painters left, as girls no longer stay home,” she says. “Everybody works in big cities and all the houses are now brick houses and not the traditional mud houses of the past. A long time ago, if you drove through the areas where Ndebele people settled, you would see lots of decorated houses. Now there are fewer and fewer. I am very scared that one day the only Ndebele mural or painting that you will see will be a picture in a book or in a museum.”
Clearly part of Mahlangu’s preservationist instinct is due to the very real possibility that local participation in traditional Ndebele art is decreasing. But another part of her attitude is based in the encroachment of modern Western standards of living and appearance on Ndebele people, standards that, arguably, Mahlangu herself has actively participated in fostering by collaborating with brands like BMW, Belvedere, and even Scandinavian sneaker company Eytys. This is not to say that Mahlangu’s collaboration with these brands is wrong or hypocritical, but rather to point out the tension between the ways in which Mahlangu has raised the Ndebele profile on the global stage, and the ways in which that stage has simultaneously influenced Ndebele society. There are no concrete borders between cultures, keeping both cultures’ traditions “pure.” Influence between cultures is nearly always a mutual exchange, if not necessarily an equal one. This is something Mahlangu herself acknowledges in her Artsy interview, saying quote, “There has always been a fascination, demand, and admiration for art from Africa.” End quote. The tension between preservation and innovation, or between maintaining tradition and allowing influence, is contentious in every culture, but much more urgently so in cases like the Ndebele and other indigenous groups around the world where Euro-American culture tends to roll in and overtake everything.
One of the ways the Ndebele, as well as cultures in similar situations to the Ndebele, have dealt with this tension is to split their art production into two major categories, as Adrienne Hoard writes in her article on the commodification of Ndebele art. There is isikethu, or quote-unquote “real Ndebele” art, and isikhuwa, art that appeals to white sensibilities and is suitable for commercial sale. Hoard discusses aspects of this duality in the following way:
“Because of the growing international trade in beautiful, non-traditional versions of Ndebele ancestral art forms, there is mounting debate on the ethics of making modified ritual forms to meet non-Ndebele consumer demand. Supporters claim that the women and their families need the income, while contenders question the formal precedents being established for younger creators… Through the efforts of His Majesty King Mayitjha III, the Ndebele sovereign; his elders; and the two master artists, Ester [sic] Mahlangu and Francina Ndimande; painting lessons with both traditional chicken feather brushes and modern brushes take place daily in Mabhoko…in Mpumalanga Province…. Ndebele art speaks no longer just to the indigenous community, but now serves also as an aesthetic commodity, an economic ‘bridge to the 21st century’ for these women and their families.”
The monetization of Ndebele culture also extends to Ndebele women, particularly when they wear traditional Ndebele clothing and jewelry, as Esther Mahlangu does. As Chris J. van Vuuren discusses in an article on this topic, Ndebele women in ritual clothing have long been photographed for postcards, coffee table books, or otherwise for the benefit of tourists, effectively making their bodies and images commodities in and of themselves. Van Vuuren takes care to note, however, that Ndebele women have taken some degree of agency in the commodification of their culture, using it as an opportunity to sell garments and jewelry and thus gain a degree of financial independence they might not otherwise have had. Esther Mahlangu, who insists on always wearing her traditional Ndebele clothing and jewelry, refusing even to take it off when going through airport security, is as much of a spectacle for the world outside Mpumalanga Province as her art. All of this again builds on the idea of adapting traditions within a rapidly changing modern world, choosing carefully what can be retained and what can change, and activating traditions to new and different ends in order to succeed. To some extent, this may feel sad, or exploitative—and it’s true, the capitalist systems that have come to dominate our world are exploitative—but there is also a shrewd agency in the way Mahlangu and her fellow Ndebele women have activated their culture and traditions in order to continue to thrive.
Now, we return once again to the eternal “so what”? What does all this mean in relation to Untitled, 2008? Well, for one thing, we’ve seen just a hint of how complex the context of this painting really is. From the trajectory of Esther Mahlangu’s career up to 2008, to the complex racial dynamics surrounding South African sports, to the Ndebele people and how they have capitalized on the rest of the world’s curiosity about them, there are dualities and tensions galore to explore! It’s much more than one might expect to be thinking about, looking at an abstract painting with fairly straightforward geometry. A first look at the painting without these contexts gives a sense of fun and playfulness, and certainly, despite the context, the pinks and greens and blues and the energy of it all are extremely joyful. Esther Mahlangu herself also reads as pretty joyful in interviews, cracking jokes about TSA getting mad because she won’t take off her brass wedding jewelry, chuckling about how everyone couldn’t believe she was painting a BMW with chicken feathers, and consistently reiterating how happy it makes her that people enjoy Ndebele art. Untitled, 2008 may not be her best-known or most significant work, but it seems to have that joyfulness on lock, even as it also relates to much harder-to-process aspects of history and culture. It may even be more complex than the issues surrounding Mahlangu’s corporate collaborations, which have continued to occur as recently as 2016, when Mahlangu teamed up with BMW again to paint parts of the interior of a 7 Series. The tension between art and money weighs heavy on all forms of art, corporate collaborations or not. What kind of money went into it, how much it will be sold for and to whom, who benefits when the work is sold on the secondary market and the proceeds do not return to the artist’s pocket—none of these issues are unique to Esther Mahlangu’s work. Art is just as worthy of study whether it’s commissioned by a corporation or an individual or is an original creation that serves no patron but the artist themselves. In the case of Untitled, 2008, it may not be a commercial collaboration or a direct promotion of something, but it certainly raises the profile of both the Ndebele and South Africa, making it, and its creator, assets to South African tourism whether or not they were intended to be. But, as I mentioned earlier, Mahlangu and the Ndebele have found ways to exercise agency even in situations when they are being used as tourist attractions, and in Untitled, 2008 one could argue that Mahlangu is in turn using the South African flag and the motif of a popular sport, all in playful, approachable colors, to create an eminently desirable product that collectors will want to buy.
As with so many of the works of art that I cover on this podcast, I can only really scratch the surface of the types of issues that surround Untitled, 2008. The politics and impact of the 2010 World Cup, and of South African football in general, could certainly be explored with greater depth, as could the significance of specific motifs Mahlangu employs in the painting within Ndebele culture. We could talk more about the importance of materials and the studio conditions in which Mahlangu creates her works, or the potential significance of the figures that she has included in an otherwise heavily abstracted image. Untitled, 2008 is so much more than meets the eye, as is Mahlangu herself, an 82-year-old mother and grandmother whose passport has accumulated more stamps since 1989 than most people’s will in their entire lifetime. Untitled, 2008 and Esther Mahlangu’s career prompt us to question what we value, why we value it, what is worth preserving, what is worth adapting to, and what ultimately brings us joy and fulfillment when all that other stuff is resolved.
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Thank you so much for listening to this episode of Art History for All. You can find a transcript of this podcast, as well as a link to the image and citations, at arthistoryforall.com. Go ahead and subscribe to us wherever you like to listen to podcasts, follow us on Twitter and Instagram at arthistory4all, with the number 4, and if you really enjoyed the podcast, please consider leaving a tip on our Ko-Fi, at ko-fi.com/arthistoryforall. This podcast was produced and narrated by Allyson Healey, and the theme was composed by Bruce Healey. Credits for other music can be found in the episode description or at the end of the transcript. New episodes go up on the last Monday of every month—and keep an eye out for upcoming bonus content! Thanks so much for listening, and remember to look closely—you never know what you might see.
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Music from https://filmmusic.io:
“The Complex,” “Enchanted Journey,” and “Babylon,” by Kevin MacLeod (https://incompetech.com)
Licence: CC BY (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/)
 Adrienne Hoard, “The Commodification of Art: Ndebele Women in the Stream of Chance,” Cultural Survival Quarterly, Winter 2001, 37.
 Hoard, 37-38.
 Hoard, 38.
 Tracy McVeigh, “Grandmother of African Art Finds Unlikely Partner in War on Aids,” The Observer, August 27, 2016. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/aug/27/artist-esther-mahlangu-lady-gaga-belvedere-vodka-red-aids-south-africa.
 Chris J. van Vuuren, “Iconic Bodies: Ndebele Women in Ritual Context,” South African Journal of Art History 27, no. 2 (January 1, 2012): 332.
 Marina Cashdan, “Esther Mahlangu Is Keeping Africa’s Ndebele Painting Alive,” Artsy, September 23, 2016, https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-esther-mahlangu-is-keeping-africa-s-ndebele-painting-alive.
 “Esther Mahlangu,” Esther Mahlangu Art, accessed June 20, 2019, http://www.esthermahlanguart.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/Esther-Mahlangu-CV.pdf. Curriculum vitae.
 “Esther Mahlangu,” in Wikipedia, December 11, 2018, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Esther_Mahlangu&oldid=873098949.
 “Esther Mahlangu,” Curriculum vitae.
 Peter Alegi, “Football in South Africa,” Text, South African History Online, March 22, 2011, https://www.sahistory.org.za/article/football-south-africa.
 Mahlangu, quoted in McVeigh.
 Mahlangu, quoted in Cashdan.
 Mahlangu, quoted in Cashdan.
 Hoard, 39.
 Hoard, 39-40.
 van Vuuren, 342.
 van Vuuren, 340-342.
 McVeigh and “‘I Painted a BMW with Chicken Feathers,’” BBC News, accessed June 5, 2019, https://www.bbc.com/news/av/world-africa-37858299/esther-mahlangu-the-woman-who-painted-a-bmw-with-chicken-feathers.
 See “I Painted a BMW with Chicken Feathers” for a close-up of Mahlangu’s passport