”Through my art, I have seen the world. In turn, the world learned about my Ndebele heritage. I speak isiNdebele, I walk isiNdebele and I wear isiNdebele – it is my culture. I am humbled and honoured to receive this prestigious accolade for keeping my culture alive for the generation to come after me.” This was the sentiment of South Africa’s foremost Ndebele artist and international icon, Esther Nikwambi Mahlangu, who with song, cheers and a standing ovation accepted an honorary doctoral degree from the University of Johannesburg (UJ) on Monday, 09 April 2018.
“With this honorary doctorate, we recognise Esther Mahlangu for her legacy as a cultural entrepreneur, skillfully negotiating local and global worlds, and as an educator. Indeed, as a visionary individual, she traverses what to others are insurmountable political barriers. From now on it is Dr Mahlangu!” said Professor Federico Freschi, the Executive Dean of the Faculty of Art, Design and Architecture (FADA) at UJ.
Dr Mahlangu began painting as a child. At the age of 10, her mother and grandmother in accordance with tradition have taught her the art of Ndebele homestead wall painting and beadwork. Her work came to international attention in 1989 after her inclusion on the important exhibition Magiciens de la terre, held at the Centre Pompidou in Paris.
In 1991, she painted the 525i model for the BMW Art Car Series, the first woman and the first person from outside Europe or the United States to do so. He designs also covered the tails of British Airways aircraft in 1997, and on the new Fiat 500
In 2017, artist Imani Shanklin Roberts on a Tribeca boulevard in New York celebrated her with a mural. In collaboration with Swedish fashion designer, Eytys, embroidered Ms Mahlangu’s designs on to the Doja Mahlangu series, reaching the ramp of more than one European Fashion Week.
Over the past three decades, Dr Mahlangu has exhibited both mural and canvas paintings throughout Europe, Asia, North and South America, also capturing the imagination of more than one generation on social media through charitable campaigns.
She collaborated with American singer, songwriter, musician and actor John Legend in a 2017 Belvedere Vodka advertising campaign, along with RED (a Bono-founded charitable organisation) to raise awareness and raise funds for the fight against HIV/AIDS in Africa.
As a national icon and custodian of heritage Dr Mahlangu has been honoured with awards and medals by Government many times, and by more than one South African president. She received the Order of Ikhamanga, silver class, in 2006, as well as the Mpumalanga Arts and Culture Award, an award from the French Ministry of Culture, two awards from Radio Ndebele, and many others from South Africa and abroad.
“In the context of current debates in South African institutions of higher learning on questions of decolonisation of the curriculum, Dr Mhlangu is a living example of how authentic African knowledge systems can be articulated meaningfully and sustainably,” said Prof Freschi.
“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.”
Dr Mahlangu is the third recipient of an honorary doctorate conferred by the University during this year’s autumn graduation season.
In March, Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng received an honorary doctorate in recognition of his pioneering commitment to serving humankind by upholding the independence of the judiciary and by promoting access to justice in tangible ways.
In February, the University acknowledged Prof Robert Fry Engle, a world-renowned economist and the 2003 Nobel laureate in economics for his pioneering discovery of a method for analysing unpredictable movements in financial market prices and interest rates
Dr Mahlangu concluded: “This honour bestowed on me today binds me to this institution that shares my passion. I have respect for the University and it endeavours to promote Africanism.”