SO THIS HAPPENED // MEETING THE LEGENDARY ESTHER MAHLANGU

When I posted a bust / mannequin by the legendary artist Eshter Mahlangu on Instagram 2 weeks agonever in my wildest dreams did I think I would be sitting at her house talking to her as if she was my own grandmother, ever, let alone two weeks later.  But such is the pull of the universe ladies and gentlemen. I have a met a truly wonderful being in one Tsakani Mashaba, the creator of the must have Ham Ethop bags, which we are launching in August 2015.  She’s a not only a creative conduit, she’s got integrity enough to consider the greatest influence of Ham Ethop’s Ndebele print bags, the one and only Esther Mahlangu.  Tsakani thought it would be sacrilege if her brand didn’t honor or get the blessing from the world famous Gogo, who is responsible for evolving an ancient art form and making it synonymous with a whole culture.  So she contacted Mam Esther’s people and asked me to go with her to Mpumalanga where Gogo lives to present the bags to Gogo and see what could come out of it.

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We arrived on Saturday afternoon and Gogo was waiting for us in a sunny spot on the main stoep of her fantastic property (you would think the neighbours would be inspired by living next to a legend but their houses are plain as winter is cold). She was wearing her traditional Ndebele attire, a striking mirage of colour, texture and form that she wears every single day. I learned that the neck, arm and leg rings she wears are her wedding rings which she has worn since her wedding day some 60 years ago.  The neck ring is gifted by the parents and the arm and leg rings are from her husband.  Airports are naturally, a nightmare for her since she can’t take any of her gear off and it’s a nightmare she has to endure every time she travels.  I lost count of how many countries she has been to because of her work. It sounded like rap song, especially in her thick Ndebele accent (she doesn’t speak much English) when she was reciting Washington DC, Santa Fe, San Francisco, Chicago, Lisbon, Paris, Barcelona, Rio, Australia, Japan, China, United Kingdom, Italy, Canada! She always wears this outfit, warmed by a Ndebele blanket and a printed dress top of her designs, a gift she received while working in Brazil. She has a tatoo on her forehead and listens like a bird, laughs like she still has another 50 years to live and has the memory of a notebook, which is amazing considering her 80 years. She doesn’t remember what year it all began though, how she became known as the Esther Mahlangu.

She used to work at a museum in Middlesburg and one day, was asked to paint one of the museum walls in traditional Ndebele house wall art style.  During this time, traditional Ndebele walls were painted using four natural colours: black soot, a chalky white colour, the orange ochre that came from mountainous areas after the rain and mud brown.  Historically, the Ndebele didn’t have access to the primary colours we know today.  The patterns were always there, sometimes drawn on the wet cow dung that covers the walls of many Nguni mud houses across Southern Africa. She had only known this style but because of the availability of primary colours such as blue, red and yellow at the museum, she decided she would paint the Ndebele style patterns which her mother and grandmother taught her on a white wall using primary colours instead of the traditional colours.  The museum curators were beside themselves and commissioned her to do another wall, which she would be paid for. Again, flames, which had them telling everyone who had eyes to come and see this woman’s work.

She then decided to paint these new patterns and colours onto objects and one day went to a dumping ground and collected random wooden objects and painted these patterns on them.  The white people bought them all.  And with those earnest brush strokes, Eshter Mahlangu single handedly evolved her culture’s identity in the eyes of the world forever.  Like many people, I thought that that’s how Ndebele people have always painted their walls, but that’s not the case.  This is why she and not all Ndebele painters, is the mother of this style. She’s not selfish with it though, she has taught countless members of her community to paint in this style.  She has classroom on her property in which she gives free lessons to children and paid lessons to adults, some of whom have come from as far as the US and Australia.

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We also went to the Ndebele Cultural village where we saw the evolution of Ndebele architecture and wall art as well as visited the rather thin museum which houses some Ndebele artefacts.  I highly recommend a visit to this village, it’s only 90 min from Joburg, and although there’s nothing much to do there, it’s a sight to behold, especially if you don’t know anything about the history of these beautiful patters.

I don’t want to say too much about the collab between Ham and Ethop and Esther Mahlangu but keep watching this space.  Tsakani and I left feeling so inspired, not only by the village but by the kind of woman Gogo is knowing how far this thing of hers has taken not only her, but her people.  She travels with her grand daughter Miriam, whom she has taught her freehand style since Miriam was a small child. I don’t know how she or any of the other painters who have now perfected the style dream up those amazing patterns, which never seem to get old.

She so loved Ham Ethop bags that she called her grandchildren and told them about these ladies from Joburg and showed them the beautiful bags. It won’t be long before you can buy these bags, as I said, stay tuned for the launch of an online store, some interesting collabs and of course a bubbly filled real life launch.

Follow @hamethop on Instagram for more updates.

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