esther-mahlangu

Esther Mahlangu – tribal artist turns sneaker designer at 81

Hook-ups between sneaker brands and pop-culture icons are hardly a new phenomenon, with singers and rappers from Drake to Run DMC having their own range of fashion-forward footwear. Swedish trainer company Eytys, however, are surely the first to invite a woman in her 80s to customise their brand.

Esther Mahlangu

Photography: Travys Owen

Before you think doily prints and knitted laces however, this woman is a legendary artist with a unique back story. Esther Mahlangu works with the traditional craft of painting specific to her Ndebele community in South Africa, but her own colourful spin has turned her into an artist of international repute.

Esther Mahlangu

Photography: Travys Owen

Born in 1935 in the Kwamhlanga region of Mpumalanga, South Africa, Mahlangu learnt to paint using the traditional forms and skills of her tribe. Here it is the women of the group who use traditional motifs to paint freehand the outside of buildings, with girls entering puberty sequestered from three months and taught the intricate art by older women. These graphic patterns adorn buildings all over southern Africa and had always been painted in four natural colours, made using black soot, chalky white and orange ochre.

Esther Mahlangu

Murals at the home of Esther Mahlangu, May 19, 2014. Photo: Richard B. Woodward

It wasn’t until Mahlangu was asked by a museum she was working at to paint a traditional pattern on one of their walls that her own distinctive style was born however. Instead of these muted colours Mahlangu chose to use the bright commercial paint colours that were available at the museum, creating a vibrant style of primary colours and bold graphic shapes that quickly caught the attention of the wider world.

Esther Mahlangu

Today Mahlangu has been invited to exhibit her work in galleries across the globe, collaborating on prestigious projects with companies like BMW and British Airways, with the collaboration with Eytys just the most recent – and perhaps most accessible. You can get your mitts on a pair here, or if the stunningly on-trend global style of Mahlangu’s home paintings are more your thing you can see many more inspiring examples of her craft at The Contemporary African Art Collection website.

Esther Mahlangu

Photography: Travys Owen



Ros Anderson

About

Ros Anderson is an interiors journalist and blogger who has worked for The Guardian, Elle Decoration, Ideal Home and many more. In 2009 she co-founded cult interiors blog My Friend's House with Jill Macnair, as a place to write about design in a more honest, spontaneous and humorous way.


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