Esther Nikwambi Mahlangu (NaGiyana Nostokana) was born in 1935 on a farm near Middelburg, Mpumalanga. She learned mural painting from her mother and grandmother. By 1945, at 10 years old, she was already painting in the custom called ukugwala — the wall painting of the outside of one’s home. Although she had no daughters of her own, by teaching many in her community, Mahlangu has achieved her stated goal: as a catalyst for the continuation of Ndebele culture.
Limited-edition footwear collections, skateboards, and branded sneakers, have all recently been on the drawing board for the 81-year old (who does not drive and seldom wears shoes). Mahlangu may only drink hot water, but all the same she's just done a highly visible collaboration with musicians John Legend and Usher for Belvedere Vodka. In the age of social media, Mahlangu, BMW, and Belvedere are getting a lot of mileage out of it.
Artist Peter Clarke once said: “Esther Mahlangu's colourful exploration and defining of space and spaces has taken her name a great distance.”
Beside the main road into Mabhoko in the KwaMahlangu district of Mpumalanga, there is a brightly painted billboard that reads, “Esther is here”. The French translation, “Esther est ici”, is also included. Below, it states: “The 1st woman who visited oversea” and capitalised, far larger, “ART WOMAN”.