Renowned SA Artist, Esther Mahlangu, to receive honorary doctorate degree

The University of Johannesburg (UJ) will present South Africa’s internationally acclaimed Ndebele artist, Esther Nikwambi Mahlangu, with an honorary degree on today.

“With this honorary doctorate, we recognize Esther Mahlangu for her legacy as a cultural entrepreneur, skilfully negotiating local and global worlds, and as an educator. Indeed, as a visionary individual, she traverses what to others are insurmountable political barriers,” says Professor Federico Freschi, the Executive Dean of the Faculty of Art, Design, and Architecture (Fada) at UJ, according to a report by News24.

Mahlangu’s work first won international attention in 1989 after her inclusion in the exhibition Magiciens de la Terre at the Centre Pompidou in Paris.

Racking up numerous awards ever since she was recently honored with a mural by artist Imani Shanklin Roberts in New York.

Mural in honor of Esther Mahlangu in New York.

The 81-year-old artist was first introduced to the medium as a young girl of 10, being taught the art of Ndebele homestead wall painting and beadwork by her mother and grandmother as women were responsible for painting the walls of their homes with the bright colors. 

Over the past three decades, Mahlangu has exhibited both mural and canvas paintings throughout Europe, Asia, North, and South America, capturing the imagination of more than one generation on social media.

The heritage icon is today passing on her teachings at her home in KwaNdebele in Middelburg, Mpumalanga.

Esther Mahlangu. Credit: AP Photo/Jerome Delay

Mahlangu is the third recipient of an honorary doctorate conferred by the University during this year’s Autumn graduation season, following Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng and Professor Robert Fry Engle.

The university said, according to News24,  as a national icon and custodian of heritage, Mahlangu has been honoured with awards and medals by government many times and by more than one South African President.

“In the context of current debates in South African institutions of higher learning on questions of decolonisation of the curriculum,” says Prof Freschi, “Esther Mahlangu is a living example of how authentic African knowledge systems can be articulated meaningfully and sustainably. In her, we have an icon worthy of being looked up to by the next generation of creatives, and the university, in particular, Fada is greatly honoured to confer the degree of Philosophiae Doctor honoris causa upon her.”

Painted BMW by Esther Mahlangu

Mahlangu is a distinguished painter whose work is based on the traditional and intricate paintings of the Ndebele people in South Africa. Mahlangu’s use of geometric shapes is a nod to the detailed beading and clothing typically worn by Ndebele women.

In May this year, she will be participating in an international women’s exhibition which will include work by conceptual artist, Yoko Ono, at the Nirox Foundation Sculpture Park in Johannesburg.