9 3/4" W x 9" H
In 2014, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts commissioned Esther Mahlangu to create two nine-by-fifteen foot (2.75 x 4.57m) paintings for the collection.
These wonderful works provide a transformative Ndebele intervention in an Italianate-style court where they shine like a beacon on the walls leading to
the African gallery. Given their large format, the obvious choice was for Esther to paint these works in-situ at the museum. Each painting is titled Ibala
leSindebele (Ndebele Design). They are stretched canvases and so can be moved to another gallery or included in an exhibition, and future building
renovations wi l l not spell the end of these unique works. Indeed, some of Esther’s most significant international mural projects now exist only through
photographic documentation. In view of her abiding desire to continue and to preserve Ndebele culture, permanence was an important consideration.
The works extend our representation of Ndebele design, make an important addition to the museum’s representation of global contemporary art, and
bear relationship with other murals at VMFA, including Sol LeWitt’s Wall Drawing #541 and Ryan McGinness’ Art History Is Not Linear. LeWitt’s Wall
Drawing #541 is painted directly on the walls at the entrance to the museum’s late 20th century galleries. When those murals were destroyed during a
building renovation, they were not lost, but were repainted afterwards because LeWitt’s work consists of instructions that can be repl icated. Designed for
a space heralding entry to the museum, the McGinness commission, like that of Mahlangu’s, is not painted on the wall; its sixteen panels were created in
It is well known that Mahlangu’s international career was doubly propel led by the 1 989 invitation to participate in the landmark Magiciens de la Terre
exhibition in Paris and the 1 991 BMW commission to paint a car for their Art Car Co lection. Esther’s adventurousness and agility in taking her art to new
locales and formats set the stage for broadening her approaches to painting. What movements and developments in the history of art worldwide have not
been enriched by new contacts, situational changes, or patronage leading to transitions in form and format? Painting on canvas and on a variety of objects
offered Esther the means to rea ize her objective of making her art more widely accessible.
As an important component of our global mission, VMFA has a strong collection of the arts of Africa, broadly spanning the continent over 6,000 years
from pre-dynastic Egypt now to Esther’s 201 4 paintings. We are actively collecting contemporary works, and in 201 0, we organized the exhibition
Darkroom: Photography and New media in South Africa since 1 950. The decision to commission Esther Mahlangu, which was facilitated by a network of
friendships, was made because her work compellingly moves Ndebele design, through her distinctive style and innovation, to an international
contemporary art context.
Teacher that she is, Esther painted daily for a month in view of a highly interested and appreciative audience – among them painters, beadwork artists,
street artists, and art teachers – and she took time to meet and talk with people as work permitted. Even while Esther and her granddaughter Miriam
were bringing the two paintings into being, teachers in regional elementary and middle schools commenced student projects based on Ndebele designs. In
this way she reached young people in Virginia, albeit by example rather than direct instruction. Given Esther’s strong wi l l to paint as a very young girl ,
perhaps the way her art has stimulated students in their takes on Ndebele-style is a fitting tribute to the artist on her 80
Richard B. Woodward
Curator of African Art
Virginia Museum of Fine Arts
Richmond, Virginia, USA