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Unisa honours global icon Dr Esther Mahlangu for her mathematical indigenous knowledge

On 16 April 2024, Unisa conferred the Doctor of Philosophy (Honoris Causa) to Internationally acclaimed Ndebele artist Dr Esther Mahlangu in recognition of the profound mathematical principles embedded in her breathtaking and mesmerising artwork.


Prof Moloko Sepota, Dr Esther Mahlangu, Prof Puleng LenkaBula and Dr Dan Mosia, with #UnisaDistinguishedScholars

Mahlangu's vibrant geometric patterns and intricate designs are not just visually stunning; they embody a profound understanding of symmetry, repetition, and spatial relationships. The university acknowledged her work as a unique blend of artistic expression and mathematical brilliance. The recognition not only celebrates Mahlangu's artistic legacy but also challenges traditional perspectives on the intersection of art and mathematics.

Global recognition

Mahlangu is credited with translating traditional Ndebele designs, typically used for house decoration, onto contemporary mediums like canvases and car bodies. Since she started painting with her grandmother at 10, her artistic journey has flourished internationally for over seven decades. Her artworks represent artistic mastery and serve as a bridge between tradition and contemporary art, keeping the Ndebele artistic heritage alive.

Her art has gained international acclaim. She has participated in exhibitions in over 20 countries, painted murals in eight cities, and collaborated with prestigious institutions and brands. She received three honorary doctorates in visual and performing arts before Unisa's. She was appointed as an Officer of Arts and Letters (Officier de L'Ordre Arts et Lettres), France's highest decoration for contributing to the arts. In 2020, she became the first artist in the world to be commissioned to create an artwork for the gallery of a new Rolls-Royce Phantom named: "The Mahlangu" in her honour.

Notably, she was the first woman and African artist to be featured in the BMW Art Car Collection in 1991. In addition, earlier this year, she was awarded the distinguished Lifetime Achievement award at the inaugural South African Creative Arts Awards (SACA) for her exceptional global contributions as a contemporary artist.


Unisa Principal and Vice-Chancellor Prof Puleng LenkaBula

"At Unisa, we recognise Mahlangu's work as something that transcends art," said Unisa Principal and Vice-Chancellor (VC) Professor Puleng LenkaBula. The VC said: "It is our firm conviction that her work is a form of mathematics and should be recognised as such." She added that Unisa, as an African university, is committed to recognising and affirming indigenous knowledge systems to ensure that they do not play second fiddle to other knowledge systems in the world.

Cultural blueprint

Presenting her degree, Professor Simi Dube, Deputy Executive Dean of the College of Science, Engineering and Technology, explained that Mahlangu's art served as a cultural blueprint for the renaissance in African art in the late twentieth century and that her original contributions to art practise have exerted a profound influence on contemporary modern art globally through major international commissions and exhibitions. She further stated that her geometry-inspired Ndebele artwork practice displays a bold command of mathematical indigenous knowledge systems and linear perspective. She continued: "Her intricately stylised designs and her ideogrammatic flatness continue to inspire young generations of artists and designers. For this reason, her artworks are integral to school and university curricula in South Africa and abroad."


Prof Simi Dube

Dedication, resilience, and artistic excellence

At the conferral of her honorary degree, Mahlangu expressed deep appreciation towards Unisa for acknowledging her work. She revealed that due to her social circumstances, she was never afforded the opportunity to pursue formal academic qualifications. She recounted instances where her artistic expressions were not widely understood, but she persevered in her mission to share her gifts with the world. The VC echoed this sentiment, highlighting that it is precisely her art and the gift she has shared with the world that is now recognised by universities, a testament to her dedication, resilience, and artistic excellence.

Determined to keep her culture prosperous, Mahlangu set up an art school right in the backyard of her home. Located in Mabhoko (Weltevreden), Mpumalanga, the school is her project. She personally finances it and teaches young artists traditional Ndebele design techniques. Students learn how to mix paints and create perfect lines without sketches.

Mahlangu's influence extends far beyond the art world. She is a celebrated cultural ambassador, ensuring the preservation of the rich Ndebele artistic heritage for generations to come. Her unwavering dedication to her craft and her powerful visual language continue to inspire artists and mathematicians alike.


*By Godfrey Madibane, Acting Journalist, Department of Institutional Advancement, with additional reporting by the Unisa Media Affairs

**Photography by Shooheima Champion, Multimedia Centre

To watch the graduation ceremony, click here

Publish date: 2024/04/17

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