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FEATURE / MAHLANGU IN CONCEALED COLOUR

Mahlangu in concealed colour An engagement with Dr Mahlangu's contemporary art practice

Thinking and writing about Dr Esther Mahlangu’s work may finally catch up with the quality of her 75-year long contribution to the modern art of painting. Dr Mahlangu’s image and success as a promoter of the arts and heritage of painting as practiced by her people and community, Amandebele has often trumped critical appraisal of her work as a painter.

This is in part because she has never failed to or seemed to mind submitting to the demands of the industry of appearing. In fact, she has always stood out as quietly in charge of her own agency in the glare of it all. This has led to her spectacle as an elderly african woman in exotic dress being foregrounded above her individual ideas as an artist. Her art is too often handled in this language of curios and commercially adopted traditional cultural artifacts. In her many brand partnerships and collaborations, it’s not only her work that is placed on display but her person too. For generations weaned on social networks and search engines, she is the quiet “tribal” old lady who appeared standing alongside American R&B star, John Legend with playful candour for a brand promotional shoot for Belvedere Vodka. Dr Mahlangu was commissioned to design their limited edition bottle artwork in the colorful style of her “Ndebele tribal art,” as they put it. Many miss that Dr Mahlangu has for over 3 decades, without a gallerist managed a global career that made her into the pop icon we see today. Rooted still in her community, and her “tradition” she has since attracted the attention and company of a litany of celebrities: Usher, Alicia Keys, and Oprah have joined the horde of collectors the seek her work out. Then there’s her long partnership with car brands iconically captured in a photograph of her petched with quiet bashful pride next to the 7 series BMW Art Car at the 2016 Frieze Art Fair in London. As Petra Mason writes, “Previously art cars had been reserved as prestigious “boys’ toys” for the usual suspects: Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, Roy Lichtenstein, Frank Stella, David Hockney, and, more recently, Jeff Koons. Dr Mahlangu was not only the first woman to be added to that list, she was, and remains, the only African.” As one of the only two female artists to be included in the Jean Pigozzi Collection of Contemporary African Art, Dr Mahlangu was asked to paint a new Fiat 500 for their ‘Why Africa?’ exhibition in Turin, Italy. The ‘Mahlangu’ Rolls-Royce Phantom follows in this line of car collaborations with the artist. The project sees Dr Mahlangu as the first South African ever commissioned to create an artwork for the ‘Gallery’ of one of the new Rolls-Royce Phantoms. Each Phantom is designed with a glass box inserted in the dashboard that allows them to be creatively personalised. It will be unveiled during Cape Town Art Week 2020 at The Melrose Gallery, One&Only Cape Town. The Melrose Gallery will also present her solo exhibition titled ‘Abstractions of a Culture’: towards a retrospective in the Past/ Modern Section of Investec Cape Town Art Fair 2020. The show aims to put her

050 MAHLANGU IN CONCEALED COLOUR / PERCY MABANDU

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