Ndebele Commission at the VMFA

An art of unwavering eye, mind and hand coordination

Juliette Harris

In May 2014, when Richard Woodward boarded a plane for a 14-hour flight to South Africa, his long-shot idea was moving closer to probability.  Woodward, curator of African art at the Virginia Museum of Fine Art (VMFA), envisioned Ndebele murals being created at the Richmond museum by the foremost Ndebele artist, herself. 

House painted by Esther Mahlangu in South Africa. Photo: Richard WoodwardThe Ndebele women of South Africa are noted for the striking, geometric designs they paint on their houses and compound walls.  And one of them, Esther Mahlangu (b. 1935), became renowned in the early 1990s when she painted a Ndebele design on a new BMW. 

1991 BMW 525i painted by Esther MahlanguOne extraordinary aspect of this precise, hard-edge painting is that it is created without the use of any measuring or straight edge devices. It's an art of unwavering coordination of eye, mind and hand.  

Woodward's fantastic notion for a live Ndebele commission on his turf became a possibility when he learned than one of his associates, Sandra Taylor of Richmond, knows Grace Masango, who operates tours at the Cullinan Diamond Mine in South Africa. Taylor told Woodward that Esther Mahlangu might be contacted via Masango. 

He contacted the artist via this chain of associations, obtained the requisite approvals at the museum and funding from the museum’s Williams art purchase fund, and was off to meet Esther Mahlangu in person.

Woodward knew the long history of this art. Ndebele women have always taken great pride in the decoration of their homes. During the late 19th century, painted designs on the house exterior took on new vigor and importance, becoming a statement of identity and resistance against displacement from the land. 

Esther Mahlangu painted a Fiat in 2007 Mahlangu learned the art of mural painting from her mother and grandmother as a young girl during the 1940s, a time when apartheid was formalized as policy within the country.

The Ndebele mural colors have transitioned from earth tones derived from natural substances to a brighter palette with their access to commercial paints.

Woodward visited Esther Mahlangu at her home/studio compound in Mpumalanga Province, accompanied by Masango who facilitated the conversation in their respective languages.  

“We spent a delightful day together, looking around at her painted environs, discussing the project and reviewing photographs of the museum location where the paintings would be,”  Woodward recalls.   “When Esther nodded assent, I was elated.”

But with the artist's assent came a welter of complicated arrangements, Woodward says.  

"With mutual enthusiasm, including that of Grace, and Sandy on stateside, we embarked on the course of a thousand details of travel schedule, visa application, lodging, and the essentials of procuring the linen canvas and contracting for specially made stretchers for the two nine-by-fifteen foot works.  

"The paints would be artist acrylics and chosen only after Esther saw the space in person.  Given the amounts needed, special arrangements for quick shipment we set up for this key decision."

They also decided that Esther Mahlangu would be accompanied to Virginia by her granddaughter and assistant artist, Marriam, along with Grace Masango.

A Meditation Practice of Steadiness

In September 2014, visitors to the VMFA African gallery were able to watch the two very large paintings come to life in the space where they will remain on view as the newest works in the VMFA collection.

The execution seemed like a meditation practice of calm mind, exacting vision and steady hand.  No rulers, straight edges or masking tape are used!  Just feathers and brushes! 

Working without anything to guide the creation of long, straight lines would be an immense emotional and physical strain for most people.  But for the Ndebele the effort flows with an intensity of concentration, not tension. Mahlangu has said that the process makes her "very happy."   

Esther Mahlangu working on second mural. Photo: Richard WoodwardMahlangu and Marriam made no prior sketches or drawing on the canvas in pencil," explains Woodward.  "They just began painting with paint, often creating the edge of a broad line in black by using the edge of a feather dipped in the paint."  

Esther Mahlangu working on first mural. Photo: Richard WoodwardRichard Woodward further explained how they worked:

"In the first mural, Esther and Marriam made heavy black lines to establish the geometric grid of the composition, followed by filling in the spaces with luscious solid colors.  

In the second work, the approach included broad lines of varied colors carefully applied with feathers without a black and white grid to start.  

Then, on a black field, intricate designs in white were etched in delicate strokes with a feather. 

Completed first mural in context. Photo: Richard WoodwardWhen Esther creates such paintings, the vision arises directly in her mind’s eye and calls on experience learned over years and years of painting. No preliminary sketch is made and no outlining on the canvas—just starting with the paint and abundant know-A closer view.  Photo by museum visitor Jacquelyn Longhow. 

A lively spontaneity results from this approach, reveals the human touch of creation (without measuring instruments). Just the eye and the hand—though it is important mention the acrobatics and exertion also. 

Esther and Marriam paint standing, sitting, kneeling, even reclining, on scaffolding, on ladders and from the floor. All the climbing up and down and getting on and off the scaffolding is physically demanding, but Esther and Marriam perform a delicate ballet working together, sometimes right next to one another, sometimes at opposite end of the canvas, looking over one another’s shoulder, pointing, and discussing the work and who knows what else about art and life.

A view of the second mural. Photo by museum visitor Jacquelyn LongThese remarkable paintings were conceived as an opportunity for Esther to create two eye-catching, mural-sized works that would serve as a gateway to the African collection.

Esther’s bold compositions and radiant color schemes enliven the approach to the Dominion Resources Gallery and they make an important step in developing the museum’s collection of contemporary art. 

Most important they provide our audience with the chance to see magnificent works by one of Africa’s most celebrated painters who has been instrumental in developing the art of mural painting from the decoration of homes in a local community to projects created in a global, contemporary art context. 

By being painted on canvas (linen, actually), these will be lasting works, whereas murals painted directly on building surfaces can be imperiled by renovation, overpainting, or degeneration from weather outdoors.  Indeed, some of Esther’s most significant international mural projects now exist only in the form of photographic documentation."

The Virginia Museum of Fine Art is open 365 days a year; admission to all of the permanent exhibitions is free.