CAPE TOWN — Does art have the capacity to restore our disposition? I would venture a contingent response based on my experience of South African octogenarian Esther Mahlangu and her paintings, which evoke, albeit remotely, the play of stained glass windows and come across as both therapeutic and elevating. As is known, Mahlangu’s abstract and geometric works are inspired by and rooted in a long and rich Ndebele mural painting tradition, which, in some instances, represents imaginary openings or windows. The tradition is thus tied to architecture as a form of imagining space and painting as a form of abstraction or even evasion.
Mahlangu’s paintings, which follow the Ndebele tradition, are applied to portable canvas and a range of other surfaces, breaking the silence and gloom of the vault, lighting it up with a color palette that ranges from vibrant, commercially available acrylics to a more muted and ashen mix of natural clay pigments. Her works chatter and vie for one’s attention, each one carrying with it a voice or accent. Together the works form a harmonious and indelible feminine chorus: in certain instances, we see-hear Mahlangu; in others, the community of Ndebele women who carry a tradition that is tied to the home and rituals of coming of age. It is this concerto of deep and moving tradition that greets the viewer as she steps into the otherwise hushed temporary exhibition rooms at Cape Town’s Irma Stern Museum.
Blandly titled Esther Mahlangu 80, this show of recent works by the artist disappointingly retains her paintings within the South African “rural” paradigm, discussing them against the urbane and using oppositions and implicit binaries such as high versus low, art versus craft, travelled versus stationary, and white versus black. I state this as not all viewers will be able to afford the catalogue and will only be given what is connoted within the arena of display, which includes labels (with prices) placed within extreme proximity of each artwork. Regrettably, these appendages do nothing but taint one’s experience of Mahlangu’s work with the somewhat unerring and troubling realization that the Irma Stern Museum has engaged in the commerce of art when it ought to be upholding and valuing the outmoded, some would argue, ideals of autonomy and non-partisanship.
Despite this realization, Mahlangu’s art breaks out of the exhibition’s overtly commercial framework and manages to speak to the viewer individually. If your family is from Southern Europe as my extended family is, you may have participated in the annual seasonal ritual of liming walls, which serves both a symbolic and practical function. Whitewashing indicates pride and wellbeing to the immediate community, but it also serves to cool houses by increasing the amount of refracted sunlight. The thicker (and older) the layer of lime, the more the construction is protected from erosion caused by rainwater. Mahlangu’s paintings, which are tied to the timeless practice of mural painting — albeit by way of an entirely different technique — reminded me of this leisurely public moment: of holidays spent outdoors, engaging with neighbors and passersby; of escape from the scorching midday sun, disappearing into the welcoming recesses and intimacy of a darkened Alentejo home. I am not alone in my admiration of this tradition. Recently deceased architect Pancho Guedes, too, was taken by the artifice of these Ndebele creations, drawing inspiration from them for his Tonelli building in Maputo.
Following but also innovating this plural visual idiom, Mahlangu’s works speak of community. Her output evokes thoughts of neighbors coming together to admire or scorn one’s tastes in embellishing the home. It’s also impossible not to notice how the artist integrates one of the ubiquitous forms in 20th-century art, the grid, into her practice. One might argue that Mahlangu ingenuously mixes art history and local tradition to new effect in the way she bridges the art gallery with the home. This is the unfolding, I would argue, that we are given to see.
Esther Mahlangu 80 continues at Irma Stern Museum (Cecil Road, Rosebank, Cape Town, South Africa) through December 2.