Happy 85th birthday to Dr Esther Mahlangu - a national South African treasure!
Photo Cred: Esther Mahlangu | Supplied

Dr Esther Mahlangu is one of South Africa’s most iconic artists. For seven decades, she’s contributed her creativity to the country and the world. Now, a ‘new’ exhibition ‘Then I Knew I Was Good at Painting’ is taking visitors back through the living icon’s history book:


Cape Town, South Africa (19 January 2024)—Dr Esther Mahlangu has spent the last seven decades contributing to, inspiring, influencing and crafting her renowned space in contemporary art.

For the Ndebele artist who hails from humble beginnings, her decades in the art world have made history for South Africa in cultural appreciation and talent. Fans will recall Dr Mahlangu’s iconic ‘art car’ for one, that saw her become the first female and non-Western person (never mind South African) to be in the driving seat of the BMW’s iconic design. She is also an Honorary Doctorate holder for her cultural entrepreneurship.

Photo Credit: The Melrose Gallery/Esther Mahlangu

Known for her expressive relationship with colour, Ndebele patterns and a knack of turning any surface into a canvas, Dr Mahlangu has unsurprisingly won the world’s respect for her creativity. Now, she’s looking back at all she has created in a new exhibition.

Come 18 February, her Restrospective Exhibition ‘Then I Knew I Was Good at Painting’ is set to take Cape Town on a journey through time with 100 artworks that have been loaned from international collections. A series of historic photographs and a short film will also form part of the once-in-a-lifetime exhibition.

Recounting how her artistic journey began, the artist often tells the story of being trained by her grandmother in the 1940s.

“I would continue to paint on the house when they left for a break. When they came back, they would say: ‘What have you done, child? Never do that again?’ After that, I started drawing on the back of the house, and slowly my drawings got better and better until they finally asked me to come back to the front of the house. Then I knew I was good at painting.”

Curated by Nontobeko Ntombela and implemented by The Melrose Gallery, the exhibition is set to showcase Dr Mahlangu’s acclaimed life as an artist. Spotlighting iconic pieces throughout her career is only one part of this wonderful painter’s story. The commitment, passion, storytelling and cultural appreciation in each work are another.

“Mahlangu’s journey is a testament to passion, innovation, and resilience,” Nontobeko shares. 

“The retrospective pays homage to Esther Mahlangu’s unique approach to art, which intersects African cultures with modernity and the contemporary. The exhibition celebrates Mahlangu’s voice, agency, and pioneering spirit, symbolising her self-enunciation, self-determination and creativity.”

‘Then I Knew I Was Good at Painting’ will be on at the Iziko South African National Gallery in Cape Town until 11 August, and all South African art enthusiasts and Esther die-hards are implored to experience her seven decades of magic firsthand. Thereafter, the exhibition will gear a global tour; beginning at Wits before heading to the United States in 2026.

Meanwhile, in other Esther Mahlangu news, the famous art car that put her on the map is also experiencing its own full-circle moment as the car returns back to South Africa for the first time since the 90s, also at the Iziko Museums in Cape Town.

Sources: Esther Mahlangu; The Melrose Gallery Newsletter
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About the Author

Ashleigh Nefdt is a writer for Good Things Guy.

Ashleigh's favourite stories have always seen the hidden hero (without the cape) come to the rescue. As a journalist, her labour of love is finding those everyday heroes and spotlighting their spark - especially those empowering women, social upliftment movers, sustainability shakers and creatives with hearts of gold. When she's not working on a story, she's dedicated to her canvas or appreciating Mother Nature.

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