Esther Mahlangu stands in the middle of New York Avenue, surveying from afar the work she is creating. Her worn, nubby hands are folded, her hooded eyes are squinted. She is an artist at work, oblivious to the thousands of miles that separate her from the familiar terrain of the rural KwaNdebele region of South Africa, where she learned the tribal art of painting murals on clay huts. Here, she is painting on the facade of a building in busy downtown Washington. But it does not matter: Wherever she takes it, she says, the art of her people, the Ndebele, works its beauty.
Mahlangu's painters await instructions as she stands across the street envisioning color combinations and geometric designs. Her neck is stretched long and regal by the rows of copper and brass chokers she has worn like a neck brace since 1947, as is the tribal custom for married women. Metal rings also encase her lower arms and legs, and thick beaded bracelets and anklets add color. A beaded goatskin skirt hangs to her knees, topped by a woolen blanket wrapped shawl-like around her bare chest.
The small woman, 62 years old, crosses back to her work site. Her son, Elias Mahlangu, is up on a scaffold painting, as is her manager, Sarel Swanepoel, an Afrikaner of self-described progressive bent. Rachel Cross, one of three American muralists also working on the project, watches as Mahlangu dabs dollops of acrylic color onto a piece of paper: gray, aqua, pink, black, yellow, white. Mahlangu hands the paper to Cross, but few words pass between them, for they do not speak the same language. Really, they don't need to. Cross understands that these are the colors Mahlangu wants her to paint next.
Mahlangu is painting the art of the Ndebele people on a downtown facade. It is a women's art. For generations, Ndebele women have taught their daughters to bring respect and admiration to their homes by painting them with murals of brightly colored black-bordered geometric designs.
In the old days of purest tribal custom, the art told of a wedding or initiation rite or period of mourning that had visited a particular household. Seeing a painting underway, a villager walking by would know that something new was afoot. "You might call it an African telegraph," says Mahlangu. And now, she is sending her kind of telegraph to Washington: She is here, an Ndebele artist come to America.
Each day through Sept. 15, Mahlangu and her crew will be painting the front of a building next to the National Museum of Women in the Arts, which will open an exhibit titled "Esther Mahlangu, South African Muralist: The BMW Art Car and Related Works."
Her work includes not only the murals that have brought her acclaim from exhibitions in Paris, Lisbon, Tokyo and Kassel, Germany, but also her 1991 contribution to the BMW Art Car project. Mahlangu became the 12th artist -- after such names as Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg -- to decorate a BMW. Painted in the Ndebele artistic idiom, the car, as well as the mural, will be on display at the museum Sept. 15 to Nov. 13. BMW is underwriting the exhibit.
Even before the exhibit opens, small crowds have been gathering on New York Avenue between 12th and 13th Streets NW to watch the muralists at work. Each day since Aug. 24, Mahlangu and company climb atop scaffolding at the site of the old D.C. Pleasure Palace, a strip club long closed. The building was purchased a year ago by the women's museum. The pedestrians and motorists who stop silently observe the painters or take pictures of Mahlangu and her son in tribal dress.
Along with Cross and another painter who is working on a stipend, the Mahlangu project attracted another muralist who simply volunteered to help. "It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to work with an international artist," says Marion Levy, who worked on one of the colorful murals in Adams-Morgan. "They say that art crosses cultural barriers."
Ndebele art traditionally has been women's art. Women are keepers of
the home in Ndebele culture, and that means they are expected to paint the walls of their houses just as their mothers and mothers' mothers did. Unlike art in the West, the art of the Ndebele and other African tribes is an integral part of the culture and its customs. All Ndebele women are taught the art as children and as adults, painting their houses as an expression of their care for their home and of the loyalty and respect that a wife is to show her husband.
In the days when commercial paints were not available to them, the Ndebele women used pigment from plants and clay, and their range of colors was limited to browns, yellows, reds, black or white. They painted with chicken feathers, hairy plant roots or their fingers. Some of those practices still linger, but once women started using commercial paint and brushes, the colors and complexity of Ndebele art exploded. The Ndebele influence is apparent in the design of the new South African flag, with its geometric lines and bold colors.
The custom of Ndebele painting held on through the generations despite the impact of apartheid, South Africa's old policy of racial separation and oppression. A succession of white minority governments led by Afrikaners of Dutch descent used the country's black majority as a vast labor pool for menial and low-paying work; tribal groups were shunted around through segregation and forced migration, and the men often were forced to leave their families to find work on farms, in cities or in the mines. Ndebele men were no different, and their women often were left in the tribal homeland about 50 miles east of Pretoria to be keepers not only of the family but of the culture as well. The women were forced to work on white-owned farms nearby. Mahlangu, born on one such farm, cleaned kitchens as a young woman and learned to speak Afrikaans, the language of her white "baas."
Despite these vicissitudes, the Ndebele continue to speak their own language and to practice long-held cultural traditions such as men's initiation rites and girls' puberty seclusion. But Mahlangu fears that one of the culture's most expressive aspects -- its painting -- may fade as fewer and fewer young people learn the art. "I am sad," she says in Afrikaans, with Swanepoel translating. "That's why I try to teach the children."
Her son, Elias Mahlangu, 40, who has traveled here with her for the mural production and exhibition, notes that a generational shift is occurring among the Ndebele that bodes well for the preservation of the art form. "Now in the new generation, the men paint," says Elias Mahlangu, who is a traditional tribal healer. Not only does he paint with his mother, he also paints with his wife and their three daughters.
How and whether the art form will be preserved amid all the social, political and cultural upheaval of South Africa's ongoing transition cannot be known. The art culture "is totally upside down," says Swanepoel, due to an ongoing debate about what constitutes art and who should be considered an artist, and because of demands for more recognition by artists who had previously been locked out.
Mahlangu, who was commissioned in 1992 to paint a five-story mural on the Johannesburg Civic Theatre, would like to see her art displayed much more at home, though she is careful to add that she is not criticizing. Her main concern is the longevity of Ndebele tradition. Says Swanepoel, a building contractor turned artist's manager, "She sees herself as a catalyst for the continuation of Ndebele culture."
With opportunity and freedom slowly opening up in South Africa since the election of President Nelson Mandela, "There will be some of the younger generation that will follow the bus" and go to the cities, says Mahlangu. "But there will still be a big part that will continue the traditions."