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World Tour for 88-year-old cultural icon kicks off with Cape Town retrospective

HIGHLIGHTING a journey that has seen the fusion of ancient Ndebele patterns with contemporary art, this Esther Mahlangu retrospective celebrates an African icon.

BOLD strokes and visually compelling patterns seamlessly fusing traditional African art and contemporary art have transformed the walls of the Iziko South African National Gallery in Cape Town – both inside and out – with the opening of a retrospective exhibition featuring a South African legend: 88-year-old Esther Mahlangu.

The exhibition, dubbed “Then I Knew I Was Good at Painting”: Esther Mahlangu, A Retrospective, summarises a career spanning five decades, showcasing her style that blends the rich heritage of Ndebele culture with modern art.

“The retrospective pays homage to Esther Mahlangu’s unique approach to art, which intersects African cultures with modernity and the contemporary. The exhibition celebrates Mahlangu’s voice, agency, and pioneering spirit, symbolizing her self-enunciation, self-determination and creativity,” explained Johannesburg-based curator Nontobeko Ntombela.

Ntombela works as a lecturer at the Wits School of Arts. She explained that the exhibition summarises the passion, innovation, and resilience Mahlangu’s journey has had from when she was 10 years old to date.


The Iziko Museums of South Africa, announcing the launch of the exhibition, which runs through August 11, highlighted the relevance of this critical milestone not only for Mahlangu but also for South Africa’s art scene. Mahlangu’s art has become synonymous with the “Rainbow Nation”; her eye-catching style, which draws on a rich cultural heritage and years of training, has been recognised worldwide.

In a move likely to attract millions of tourists visiting Cape Town annually, the National Gallery has painted its exterior walls in a Mahlangu-inspired style.

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After August 11, the exhibition will embark on a global tour, stopping first at the Wits Art Museum in Johannesburg, South Africa, before moving to the United States in early 2026.

The exhibition also marks the return of the iconic BMW 525i Art Car of 1991, which is back in the Rainbow Nation for the first time in three decades.

Public audiences visiting the exhibition can view more than 100 artworks loaned from various international collections and historic photographs from as early as the 1940s. A short film is also part of the visual aids telling Mahlangu’s story at the exhibition.

Mahlangu’s paintings can be found amongst some of the world’s most renowned exhibitions, such as the Magiciens de la Terre (‘Magicians of the World’) international contemporary art and paintings on the walls of the AngoulEme Museum of Fine Arts in France.

The octogenarian was commissioned to paint the interior of BMW’s art car in 1991, making hers the first African car in the automaker’s series. The car has been exhibited at the National Museum of Women in Arts in Washington and at the British Museum.

“This exhibition not only celebrates the incredible journey and legacy of Mam’ Esther but also symbolizes a cherished collaboration that dates back over three decades. We are especially excited about the return of the BMW Art Car to South African soil—a significant symbol of our shared history and appreciation for art that transcends boundaries,” Peter van Binsbergen, CEO of BMW Group South Africa, states.

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Mahlangu’s exhibition coincides with Ethiopian-born artist Julie Mehretu’s landmark accomplishment, as she is the designated curator and designer of the 20th BMW Art Car, a BMW M Hybrid V8. Mehretu has recently submitted the first design studies for the art car.

Mahlangu’s retrospective also marks a special moment for South African art.

“Dr. Mahlangu is a living symbol of triumph against adversity. Her approach to art has inspired generations and is a reaffirmation of calls for Africa-centred innovations,” Bongani Ndhlovu, the acting CEO, of Iziko Museums of South Africa, said in a statement.


Despite her age and extensive success, Mahlangu continues to build her legacy. She is to participate in the 60th International Art Exhibition — the Venice Biennale — curated by Brazilian curator, Adriano Pedrosa.