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The woman painting the world with Ndebele patterns

The British Museum has been exhibiting works from South Africa’s art landscape since late last year. Part of the highlight of the exhibition is 81 year old Esther Mahlangu’s 1991 art installation, a BMW 525i, painted with murals inspired by her Ndebele heritage.



Creativity and artistry have always been part of the way of life of Africans. The current exhibition taking place at the British Museum in Britain, which showcases pieces of South Africa’s historical past and present is testament to the remarkable creativity abound on the continent. The exhibition has been running from 27th October 2016, and will remain open until the 26th of February, 2017.

The British Museum tagged the exhibition South Africa: the art of a nation which links the intertwined past of a nation: its struggles, pains, and birth through art. Works such as the gold rhino sculpture from Mapungubwe, which dates back to AD 1250-1290 were showcased.

In a statement quoted by CNN, the Director of the British Museum, Hartwig Fischer said, “South Africa: the art of a nation is a chance to explore the long and diverse history of South African art and challenges audience preconceptions in the way our visitors have come to expect from a British Museum exhibition”.

A gold rhino sculpture from Mapungubwe, which dates back to AD 1250-1290 on exhibition. Photo: Screenshot/British Museum/Instagram

The incredible work of 81 year old Esther Mahlangu, a Ndebele woman who created BMW’s 12th Art Car in 1991 to mark the end of apartheid is also being showcased. As part of the exhibition highlights, the British museum said on its website, “the design is based on traditional Ndebele house painting designs. These designs express Ndebele cultural identity and may also be read as a form of protest against racial segregation and marginalisation that Ndebele experienced in the 20th century”.

Read: Artist Esther Mahlangu harnesses Ndebele heritage to create amazing BMW 7 Series artwork


Mahlangu who only draws with feathers and twigs, combined five feathers to draw on the BMW 525i Sedan, 1991. She became the 12th artist and first woman to paint a BMW Art Car. The drawing was largely exterior and she had to paint the door of another BMW to adjust to the new form she’d be painting on. According to BMW, within one week she had transformed the car into a masterpiece of African Ndebele art. The Art Car Mahlangu designed was never driven on the road. It was meant to serve as an exhibit.

Mahlangu went on to adopt different mediums, from the body of a BMW car in 1991 to the tail of a plane, specifically for British Airways in 1997, to sneakers by Swedish Company Eytys. Her designs have plastered the world and put the Ndebele culture and art at the fore.

Fiat-500 why africa by Esthe Mahlangu

In the fight against HIV/AIDS, Belvedere vodka (RED) collaborated with Mahlangu alongside John Legend, an ambassador for Belvedere Red #MakeADifference campaign. Mahlangu’s designs will appear on a limited edition of Vodka RED bottles of which 50% of sales will be donated towards the fight against HIV/AIDS.

Mahlangu’s journey started in 1986 when a group of researchers from Paris saw her paintings. She was invited for some exhibitions and travelled to France in 1989. She drew her murals on buildings in France and Johannesburg.

Mahlangu’s interest in preserving her culture made her start an art school in Mabhoko in the KwaMhlanga district in Mpumalanga where she comes from. The fund for the school comes from her pocket. The idea is to pass down the culture to the younger generations. She wants the Ndebele culture to be known globally.

Read: Nigerian Laolu Senbanjo’s artwork features in Beyonce’s visual album, Lemonade


BMW approached her again 25 years later for another project. This time a BMW 7 Series was unveiled by BMW Individual Manufaktor and exhibited at the Frieze Art Fair, London late last year. Mahlangu’s designs were for the interior of the car. She painted on the real wood interior trims.

Commenting on her work, Mahlangu was quoted as saying, in the BMW blog:

“To paint is in my heart and it’s in my blood. The way I paint was taught to me by my mother and my grandmother. The images and colours have changed and I have painted on many different surfaces and objects but I still love to paint. The patterns I have used on the BMW parts marry tradition to the essence of BMW”.

“My art has taken me all over the world and I have seen many places, I have painted many walls and objects and my work is in many museums but I am still Esther Mahlangu from Mpumalanga in South Africa. My heart was full of joy when BMW asked me again to paint for them”.

Mahlangu’s paintings are reminiscent of Laolu Senbanjo’s Yoruba murals that were used by Beyonce in her album, Lemonade. There is no doubt that art from the continent taking its place in the world.