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07 Apr 2008

Invitation: 'Esther Mahlangu: Reacquiring' at the Kyle Kauffman Gallery

Esther Mahlangu, Out of Unity, Strength, 2006

Esther Mahlangu: Reacquiring


Exhibition dates: March 27 - May 10, 2008

+1 212 594 8086
+1 212 594 8083

355 West 39th Street
New York, NY

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Press Release:

The Kyle Kauffman Gallery is proud to present Esther Mahlangu: Reacquiring, the first US solo exhibition by South African artist Esther Mahlangu.

Esther Mahlangu: Reacquiring is a survey of her most recent body of work. This latest exhibition will include a wide range of media: paintings, beadwork and sculptural objects. Chronologically, it begins with the finest examples of Mahlangu’s flat paintings - boards and canvases elaborately decorated in either bright commercial acrylic or muted natural pigments of cow dung and mud, utilizing only feathers and bundled-twigs as brushes.  However, the focus of the exhibition is her most recent series of sculptures: contemporary objects such as trucks and signs, meticulously embellished in traditional Ndebele fashion. These objects - juxtaposing the old and the new, the abstract and the representational, the traditional and the contemporary - are the paradigmatic examples of the way in which her oeuvre is constantly evolving, breaking from convention and challenging the strictures of a customary art form.

In this work, Mahlangu appropriates emblems of war, terror and power – helmets, tanks, and police insignia - by literally encasing them in a web of geometry, line and color. Here, the abstract visual language of Ndebele supersedes its typical aesthetic significance and passive ornamental function to become an active agent of appropriation, a tool for reacquiring history and a pre-Apartheid past.  For example, in Out of Unity, Strength, an authentic, vintage Apartheid-era police sign is swathed in the common palette that unites the ?Reacquiring’ series. Salmon pinks, burgundies and pure yellows, blues and greens are boldly outlined by strong black lines and deep white voids into vibrant triangles, polygons and zig-zags. Abstracted razorblades, Mahlangu’s signature motif, proudly emblazon the surface of the sign, whose official crest and Latin motto ?Ex Unitate Vires’ (Out of Unity, Strength) are now subsumed by uber-dominant flat, even layers of paint. Here, Mahlangu triumphantly reclaims a time prior to apartheid, during which brutal displacements and forced removals scattered Ndebele families far and wide, estranging them from their brightly decorated houses, the symbolic affirmation of their identity.

Esther Mahlangu was born
in 1935 in rural Mpumalanga, South Africa, where like most Ndebele girls of her generation, she learned the skill of mural painting from her mother and grandmother in an informal apprenticeship system. In her two-dimensional paintings, she personally innovated the possibilities of a traditional, culturally-specific technique by applying it to a different medium.  In ripping Ndebele designs off site-specific African structures, and replicating them on mobile canvases and boards, she permanently expanded and facilitated international audience exposure to her art. Moreover, by incorporating the conventional support of Western painting into her methodology, she instigated a dialogue between and fusion of disparate cultural legacies and modes of expression, in true accordance with the rapidly globalizing contemporary art world.

Esther Mahlangu has exhibited in South Africa, Italy, Mexico, Germany, Japan, Switzerland and the USA.  She was first exposed to the international art scene in 1989, when she was invited to participate in Les Magiciens de la Terre by researchers from the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris. She is perhaps most famous for painting a BMW 525i in traditional Ndebele style in 1991. It remains exhibited in the prestigious BMW Art Cars Collection in Germany, alongside cars by Andy Warhol, Frank Stella, and Robert Rauschenberg. More recently, she has had several prominent solo shows at the Irma Stern Museum and 34 Long in Cape Town, South Africa. She is also one of only two female artists to be included in the distinguished Jean Pigozzi Collection of Contemporary African Art, for whom she painted a new Fiat 500 for their Why Africa? exhibition in Turin, Italy this winter.

The Kyle Kauffman Gallery will be holding an artist demonstration, book launch, and opening reception on Thursday, March 27th from 6 – 8 pm. In conjunction with the show, the Gallery will be releasing the first in a series of full-color exhibition catalogs with an accompanying essay by Dr. Kauffman.  The book will run in a limited edition of 500 copies, the first 100 to be signed and numbered by Esther Mahlangu on March 27th. Proceeds from the sale of the catalogs and her work will go to her School for Ndebele Art for local girls, which she founded and funds herself directly. Additionally, during the reception, she will be performing a live demonstration of traditional Ndebele painting techniques by completing an 8 foot mural within the gallery.  The Gallery would like to thank Virgin Atlantic Airways, whose sponsorship has made Ms. Mahlangu’s attendance possible. Please join us for this opening reception in honor of Ms. Mahlangu.
For further information on the exhibition or the catalog, please contact the Gallery. Esther Mahlangu will be available for interviews beginning Wednesday, March 26.