It is no easy task reviewing the work of Esther Mahlangu. Not that it unworthy of critique. It is just that any critical dialogue entails recycling debates that were galvanised in the 1980s, during a rather breathless, heady moment in South African art history.
That was the era in which Ricky Burnett’s Tributaries exhibition and Steven Sack’s The Neglected Tradition successfully disarmed the hegemony of high art by disposing of the prevailing notion that “untaught” rural production was the stuff of anthropology or ethnology, and therefore unworthy of artistic acknowledgement or display in art galleries. It was also the era during which ethnically loaded terms were banished from the lexicons of progressive cultural activists.Vociferous debates around arts and craft dominated cultural discourse and problematic terms like “transitional art” were bandied about as theoretical patchwork to categorise artists straddling the divide between rural and urban, traditional and contemporary. In our haste to demolish walls we sometimes formed facile equivalents between vastly divergent visual dialects and idioms. But as flawed as these reconstituted definitions proved to be they, like globally hyped Magicens de la Terre, generated a vitally important interrogative discourse around issues of art and art historical categorisation, and around concepts of modernity and postmodernity. Perhaps it is axiomatic that these interrogations should be ongoing, although definitive answers are not forthcoming.Back to Mahlangu. She has become both the apotheosis and antithesis of the tradition of rural homestead decoration, practiced by women, and associated with the Xhosa, Pedi, Hlubi, and Sotho-Tswana groups of Southern Africa, but particularly the Ndebele. Squeezed into barren homelands in the rural hinterland by racist laws, these groups practiced mural decoration as a form of territorial marking, as an extension of cultural (another vociferously contested word during the 1980s) and individual identity, as well as for the sheer uncomplicated pleasure of prettifying empty spaces.Although the designs of Ndebele homestead painting were popularised decades ago, Mahlangu has been instrumental in irrevocably removing it from its traditional sites of identity and resistance into the principally decorative, commercial realm. Her designs have become models of cross-cultural fertilisation, incorporating figurative Western images and, popular icons reinterpreted into the stylised patterns. But like Ndebele decoration in general, her motifs have also become visual clichés for a mythical image of South Africa, commodified emblems of an idyllic, frozen and fictitious cultural landscape. And Mahlangu has inadvertently helped to perpetuate the cliché. She is one of few Ndebele muralists to achieve individual recognition. Others include identical twins Emily and Martha Masanobo, who were commissioned in 1996 to decorate British Airways planes as part of a campaign to showcase the airline’s cross-cultural diversity.But unlike Mahlangu, they subsequently retuned to rural obscurity. She, however, has been catapulted into the global commercial art world, initially through her 1991 commission to decorate an art car for BMW – the first female artist to do so – thereby joining an illustrious pantheon of art stars, including Lichtenstein, Warhol and Stella. But does her work rate as significant contemporary art? The answer to that, with particular reference to her recent body of “figurative works” is an unequivocal no. Technically meticulous, vibrantly patterned and visually striking, their poster-like planes, cartoon hues and quixotic imagery are endearingly suited to the paradigms of contemporary design or illustration. But they perpetuate visual and cultural stereotypes with which we are certainly more comfortable today, but with which we are reluctant to truly engage, lest we resurrect the reviled spectre of separate and unequal development.