The University of Johannesburg (UJ) will on Monday confer South Africa’s foremost Ndebele artist and international icon, Esther Nikwambi Mahlangu with honorary doctoral degree.
“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,” says Professor Federico Freschi, the Executive Dean of the Faculty of Art, Design and Architecture (FADA) at UJ.
“Indeed, as a visionary individual she traverses what to others are insurmountable political barriers.”
Freschi said Mahlangu began painting as a child. At the age of 10 she was taught the art of Ndebele homestead wall painting and beadwork by her mother and grandmother in accordance with tradition.
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 was commissioned by BMW to paint their latest 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. Her designs were reproduced on the tails of British Airways aircraft in 1997, and on the new Fiat 500.
In 2017, she was celebrated with a mural by artist Imani Shanklin Roberts on a Tribeca boulevard in New York. In collaboration with Swedish fashion designer, Eytys, her designs were embroidered on to the Doja Mahlangu series, reaching the ramp of more than one European Fashion Week.
Over the past three decades, 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.
Mahlangu collaborated with singer 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.
Mahlangu created large special edition bottles of Belvedere for auction.
Freschi says this year in May, Mahlangu will participate in an international women’s exhibition, along with conceptual artist Yoko Ono at the Nirox Foundation Sculpture Park located in the Cradle of Humankind, near Johannesburg.
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. Esther Mahlangu is a living example of how authentic African knowledge systems can be articulated meaningfully and sustainably,” said 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.”
Mahlangu is going to be the third recipient of an honorary doctorate conferred at this year’s autumn graduation season.
Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng received an honorary doctorate on 27 March this year 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.
A month earlier Professor Robert Fry Engle, a world-renowned economist and the 2003 Nobel laureate in economics, was acknowledged for his pioneering discovery of a method for analysing unpredictable movements in financial market prices and interest rates.