The shoulders of giants

A monumental retrospective tracks Esther Mahlangu’s lifelong pursuit of the arts.

Multi-award winning, globally-acclaimed visual artist and South African national treasure, Dr Esther Mahlangu’s more than 50-years-long career and artworks will be highlighted at the Iziko South African National Gallery in Cape Town. Then I Knew I Was Good at Painting: Esther Mahlangu, A Retrospective runs from 18 February to 11 August 2024. 

Curated by Nontobeko Ntombela, the exhibition showcases Mahlangu’s meteoric rise as a contemporary artist that earned her global acclaim, particularly for her bold large-scale paintings that reference her Ndebele heritage. The exhibition charts Mahlangu’s contribution to contemporary art with more than 100 artworks loaned from international collections, alongside a selection of historic photographs and a short film. The diverse collection will offer a comprehensive yet intimate insight into her vast career.

Included in the exhibition is Mahlangu’s BMW 525i Art Car. In 1991, Mahlangu became the first woman and first African to be invited to participate in the prestigious BMW Art Car Collection, and now the car returns to South Africa for the first time in over 30 years.

‘Mahlangu’s journey is a testament to passion, innovation, and resilience,’ Ntombela remarks. ‘The retrospective pays homage to her unique approach to art, which intersects African cultures with modernity and the contemporary. The exhibition celebrates Mahlangu’s voice, agency, and pioneering spirit, symbolising her self-enunciation, self determination and creativity.’ 

The name of the exhibition recounts Mahlangu’s remarkable account of how she discovered her extraordinary artistic talent as a young girl of just 10 years old: she often tells the story of being trained by her grandmother and mother in the early 1940s, saying: ‘I would continue to paint on the house when they left for a break. When they came back, they would say: “What have you done, child? Never do that again!” After that, I started drawing on the back of the house, and slowly my drawings got better and better until they finally asked me to come back to the front of the house. Then I knew I was good at painting.’

After its stint at the Iziko National Gallery in Cape Town, the monumental retrospective will begin a global tour, stopping first at Wits Art Museum in Johannesburg before moving to the United States in 2026.

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