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South Africa’s Legend Esther Mahlangu: Sign Of The Times

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From illiteracy to wowing the global art world, the artist is teaching us a whole new way to read.

Ndebele artist Esther Mahlangu’s signature graphic murals have become icons of South African art, but few know the extraordinary story of how the 82-year-old artist, who cannot read or write, began to sign her name on the walls of the global art world’s most important museums.

Speaking to HuffPost at the signing of her latest mural – at the Nirox Foundation sculpture park in the Cradle of Humankind – Mahlangu opened up about the genesis of her signature; an extraordinary story of how traditional “craft” art moved into the global “fine” art marketplace.

In 1989, Mahlangu was asked to exhibit at Magiciens de la Terre, a landmark exhibition held at Paris’ Georges Pompidou Centre that saw the artist decorating a replica of her Mpumalanga homestead with her colourful graphic symbols. The show was her first major exhibition, and started a small stampede at the museum.

It was here that important international collectors began hounding her to sign her artworks, so that the works could be verified and ultimately sold as official “Esther Mahlangu artworks”. But until that point, the work of Ndebele artists had been applied to village walls anonymously, with only the painters and the Ndebele themselves able to discern the style of one artist from the other.

In 1989 Mahlangu was asked to exhibit at Magiciens de la terre, a landmark exhibition held at Paris’ Centre Georges Pompidou — her first major international exhibition.

As the Esther Mahlangu name became known around the world, more and more buyers requested signed, wall-based work that they could purchase and sell. So to keep up, the artist learnt to sign her works.

At our interview, Mahlangu’s longtime collaborator Helene Smuts explained that the words “Esther Mahlangu” are the only ones the artist knows how to write. Growing up at the height of apartheid segregation, Smuts says, she was denied access to basic schooling and learnt everything she knows from her family.

This meant that at the age of 54, she had to learn how to write the words of her name.

Her signature would mark the first time in history that a traditional Ndebele artist would attribute an individual name to one of the centuries-old murals.

The signing of an artwork remains contested territory, since first becoming prevalent during the early Renaissance, which saw art production shift from cooperative guild systems to a celebration of individual creativity. For Mahlangu, this meant the move from modest murals to highly sought-after commercial commodities.

The significance of her work in changing perceptions of traditional art around the world is undisputed, but it is this ability of hers, to move from the tradition of her ancestors to the needs of the global art world, that continues to propel her name internationally.

Her signature started a global phenomenon that would see the Mahlangu name and artwork emblazoned on everything from two custom-designed Esther Mahlangu BMW cars, to her own line of Belevedere vodka bottles, and exhibits from Moscow to Monaco.

A BMW Art Car by Esther Mahlangu is seen on display as part of the exhibition “South Africa: the Art of a Nation”, at the British Museum in London, Britain November 25, 2016. REUTERS/Andrew Heavens

Mahlangu stands alongside a BMW 7 series car at the Frieze Art Fair in London on October 5, 2016. / AFP / ADRIAN DENNIS (Photo credit should read ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP/Getty Images)

Today, Mahlangu has started a school in her village that teaches children the art of Ndebele mural painting, and is part of an extensive mentorship programme that is passing on her expertise to a group of assistants – who do the hard work of applying all the paint to the monumental artworks by means of feather brushes.

Mahlangu’s work has also become the focus of a 17-year study by local and international academics calling themselves the Africa Meets Africa Project, who are collectively decoding the complex mathematics held within Mahlangu’s geometric compositions.

The group confirmed to HuffPost this week that in the coming years Mahlangu’s work, which they say contains evidence of Pythagoras’ theorem, among others, could soon be included in the national school curriculum, where they hope it will bring home the genius of tradition, and the importance of its preservation.

Ready to learn Esther’s language? The full work will be revealed at the Nirox Foundation later this year, so follow them for updates.

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Tracking Truth Behind Sankara’s Assassination

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More than three decades after the murder of Burkina Faso’s revolutionary leader Thomas Sankara, getting to the bottom of who gave the orders for his assassination has been an elusive affair, despite the inception of a long-awaited judicial process that got underway in October.

This week was meant to herald the launch of a much anticipated forum of national reconciliation for Burkina Faso, in a bid to steer the country in the right direction following months, if not years, of violence and insecurity.

The Burkinabé opposition suspended its participation in the process late December, and thus it was post-poned until further notice.

Since October 2021 a special court in Ougadougou has brought into the open the myriad questions over the killing of Africa’s ‘Che Guevara’, Thomas Sankara.

Sankara was gunned down with 12 others at a meeting of the ruling National Revolutionary Council on 15 October 1987, which brought his former brother-in-arms Blaise Compaoré to power.

Compaoré went on to rule Burkina Faso for the next 27 years before himself being ousted in a coup in 2014, going into exile in neighbouring Côte d’Ivoire.

‘Chain of responsibility’

Thirty-four years after the events surrounding Sankara’s killing, the military tribunal opened on Monday 11 October to determine the chain of command behind the assassination.

Paulin Bamouni, Sankara’s presidential press director, was killed in the massacre. For his daughter Céline, “we want to know who took the decision, who committed the act, who supported it and why.”

Aïda Kiemdé, daughter of the president’s legal advisor Frédéric Kiemdé who was also gunned down in the attack, says the opening of the trial has been a relief and “is the fruit of a long judicial struggle.

“Compaorés reign lasted several years,” she told journalists, “so we had no say in the matter. This inevitably led to despair. Some families, including mine, had to leave Burkina, which meant I didn’t really know my country … because of this assassination.”

For Kiemdé, the trial is a ray of hope, “And we hope that justice will be done and that we will get the truth after several years of waiting.”

Two elephants not in the room

More than sixty witnesses provided testimony in the run up to the trial and may yet be called to the stand.

The 14 defendants have to explain themselves to the court; 12 are present, however former president Compaoré and Hyacinthe Kafando – suspected of having led the commando unit that killed Sankara – are being tried in absentia.

Compaoré has refused to appear before the courts. Kafando has been missing since 2015.

Meanwhile, Compaoré’s former right-hand man General Gilbert Diendere has been charged with harming state security, complicity in murder, concealing bodies and witness tampering.

For his part, the ousted president has persistently denied deep-rooted suspicions among Burkinabé that he ordered Sankara’s killing, while Diendere has pleaded not guilty to all charges.

However, Diendere has been separately handed a 20-year term for his part in a 2015 plot to overthrow the post-Compaoré transitional government.

Military court called into question

Another issue is that the trial is being conducted by a military court and at the time of the events, the main actors were Burkina Faso’s military.

Paul Zaïda, national coordinator of the civil society organisation Cadre d’Expression Démocratique, says the truth cannot be forthcoming from a military tribunal.

“A [special court] obeys orders and the hierarchy. We know that there is the command, but there is also the president of Burkina Faso, who is the supreme commander of the army.

“It’s true that he’s not going to be present during the trial, but I think that he will have some guidelines to give. So, it seems to me very difficult for there to be the truth in relation to this Thomas Sankara case.”

In addition, the trial investigation hasn’t tackled the possibility of international actors being involved in Sankara’s death.

Despite a number of clues pointing to the potential involvement of Côte d’Ivoire or France in the killing, the investigating judge has been unable to gather sufficient evidence.

And France in particular has not provided all the declassified archives that had been promised.

Forensics shed light on Sankara’s last moments

The judicial process has, however, shed light on how Sankara met his demise.

Last Wednesday the court heard the revolutionary president was struck by “at least seven rounds” in the chest, one of which was fired from behind.

An anatomical specialist and a police ballistics expert told the tribunal the bullets came from tracer rounds, “because of burns on the remains of clothing” that Sankara was wearing at the time.

Tracer round munitions ignite a burning powder that lights up and are designed for fighting at night, to help the shooter mark the target.

Prosper Farama, a lawyer for the Sankara family, said the testimony was revealing: “When you’re told that these are tracer rounds, which ignite on contact, you cannot say that these are the types of weapons which are used to carry out an arrest.”

Sankara’s body had been hastily disposed of after the killing and the authorities issued a death certificate saying that he had died of “natural causes.”

In May 2015, Sankara’s presumed remains and those of his companions were exhumed in May 2015 at a cemetery in Ouagadougou.

Autopsy results released the following October said that Sankara’s supposed remains were “riddled with bullets.”

A trial is a “step in the right direction”

Despite its flaws, the special court is nevertheless a necessary journey for Burkina Faso.

According to Ablassé Ouédraogo, former Minister of Foreign Affairs and president of the Le Faso autrement party: “I see that this trial has three merits: the first is to have at least part of the truth.

“The second is to allow the current government to move forward on the issue of national reconciliation.

“And what is very important is to definitively turn this sad page of Burkina Faso’s history,” Ouédraogo concludes.

The enduring case of Thomas Sankara has contributed to a poisonous socio-political atmosphere in Burkina Faso for over thirty years.

However, through the court hearings, the unbearable deceit surrounding the 1987 killings may bring to light some bearable truths that will allow the country to pick up and move on from the past.

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Paris Mayor Anne Wants To Become France’s President

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Paris Socialist Mayor Anne Hidalgo on Sunday threw her hat in the ring for France’s 2022 presidential elections, though polls indicate she faces an uphill battle unless she can unite the fractured political left.

“Knowing the seriousness of our times and to give hope to our lives, I have decided to be candidate for the French presidency,” the 62-year-old said, surrounded by supporters and her campaign team in the Normandy city of Rouen.

“Today, I am ready.”

Hidalgo, who was elected to a second mayoral term in June, will need to go through an internal primary vote of Socialist Party (PS) members at the end of the month before she is confirmed.

She faces potential competition from Le Mans Mayor Stéphane Le Foll, but has the backing of PS first secretary Olivier Faure.

Hidalgo also joins a long list of candidates on the divided French left that include Jean-Luc Mélenchon, of the far-left France Unbowed party, Fabien Roussel, head of the Communist Party and Arnaud Montebourg, a former PS minister who will not take part in the party’s primary.

Popularity polls

An Ipsos poll this month gave Hidalgo a popularity rating of 9 percent, which put her in fifth position compared to other presidential hopefuls.

French President Emmanuel Macron’s popularity saw a small boost.

Seven months out from presidential elections, Ipsos said Macron remained in a “much better position” than his two predecessors at the same stage of their five-year terms.

 

RFI

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Talibans Are Descendants of Ten Lost Tribes of Israel

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With the fall of Kabul into the hands of the Taliban just shy of the 20th anniversary of the September 11 attacks, the world’s attention has once again turned to Afghanistan.

Tucked away in south-central Asia, with unsavory neighbors such as Iran to the west and Pakistan to the east, the landlocked country, which once served as a base of operations for al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden, is as beguiling as it is complex.

And yet amid its turbulent past, in which it has served as a flashpoint for the British Empire, the Soviet Union and now the United States, Afghanistan has long been home to one of the more intriguing unsolved mysteries of Jewish history: the fate of some of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel.

Periodically over the past two decades, newspaper headlines have raised the tantalizing question of whether the Pashtun tribes who make up most of the Taliban are in fact our long-lost relatives, descendants of the Israelites who were cast into exile by the Assyrian empire more than 2,700 years ago.

While the possibility of such a connection may strike some as fanciful, a cursory look at the evidence suggests that it cannot and should not be dismissed out of hand.

The Pashtuns, or Pathans, are said to number in the tens of millions, with the bulk living in Pakistan, Afghanistan and India. They consist of several hundred clans and tribes that have fiercely preserved their heritage amid waves of foreign conquest and occupation.

Prior to the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in the region, many of the Pashtuns declared themselves to be what they referred to as Bani Israel (Sons of Israel), an oral tradition that their ancestors passed down through the generations.

This was noted by various Islamic travelers and historians, stretching as far back as the 13th century, when there was hardly any advantage to be gained by asserting an ancient Israelite identity in Central Asia.

Over the next 400 years, other Islamic scholars and writers noted the persistence of the tradition.

In the 19th century, a number of Westerners who visited the region became convinced that the Pashtuns were in fact descendants of the Israelites.

In his 1858 work, History of the Afghans, Joseph-Pierre Ferrier wrote that the chief of one of the main Pashtun tribes, the Yusefzai (Sons of Joseph), presented the Persian shah Nader Shah Afshar “with a Bible written in Hebrew and several other articles that had been used in their ancient worship and which they had preserved.”

Similarly, Major Henry W. Bellew, who served in the British colonial Indian army, in his 1861 work The Lost Tribes, wrote regarding the Pashtuns that, “The nomenclature of their tribes and districts, both in ancient geography, and at the present day, confirms this universal natural tradition. Lastly, we have the route of the Israelites from Media to Afghanistan and India marked by a series of intermediate stations bearing the names of several of the tribes and clearly indicating the stages of their long and arduous journey.”

More recently, the late president of Israel, Yitzchak Ben-Zvi, in his 1957 study about far-flung Jewish communities The Exiled and the Redeemed, devoted an entire chapter to “Afghan tribes and the traditions of their origin.”

Basing himself on scholarly research, as well as on interviews he conducted with numerous Afghani Jews who made aliyah in the 1950s, Ben-Zvi wrote, “The Afghan tribes, among whom the Jews have lived for generations, are Moslems who retain to this day their amazing tradition about their descent from the Ten Tribes.”

While he cautiously notes that, “the evidence in our possession is, of course, insufficient for practical conclusions to be drawn therefrom,” he nonetheless correctly asserts, “The fact that this tradition, and no other, has persisted among these tribes is itself a weighty consideration.”

Modern-day scholars have added greatly to our stock of knowledge on this subject. Dr. Navraz Aafreedi, an Indian academic in Kolkata who hails from a Pashtun background, has written extensively and persuasively about the evidence of an Israelite connection, and Dr. Eyal Be’eri, the leading Israeli scholar on the Pashtuns, has recorded a series of their customs and traditions that are identical to those of Jews.

These include practices such as circumcision on the eighth day after birth, refraining from mixing meat and milk, lighting candles on the eve of the Sabbath and even levirate marriage.

Other scholars have noted similarities between the Pashtun’s ancient tribal code, the Pashtunwali, and Jewish traditions.

While DNA studies have provided limited evidence to back up these assertions, a 2017 article in the journal Mitochondrial DNA did find there to be “a genetic connection of Jewish conglomeration in Khattak tribe,” one of the Pashtun clans.

And although the Taliban have done a great deal to erase any trace of their pre-Islamic history, the tradition refuses to die.

As Hebrew University anthropologist Dr. Shalva Weil has noted regarding the Pashtuns’ link with the lost tribes of Israel, “There is more convincing evidence” about them than anybody else.

This fascinating historical curiosity, however, should not blind us to the fact that the Taliban are viciously anti-Israel and no Pashtuns are known to have shown any public interest in returning to their Jewish roots.

Indeed, as Dr. Be’eri has argued, even if the Pashtuns are biologically and historically connected with the people of Israel, it still does not mean that “tomorrow they will convert to Judaism and come to live in the Land of Israel.”

Merely talking about “mass conversion and migration of millions of Pashtuns from Afghanistan and India into the State of Israel,” he has written, could damage prospects for building greater regional cooperation and understanding.

There are, of course, other theories regarding the origins of the Pashtuns as well as scholars who discount or reject the contention of an ancient Israelite connection.

But given the Pashtuns’ ancient civilization and far-flung diaspora, and their key political and demographic role in various parts of the Asian subcontinent, it would seem prudent for the Jewish people to seek out avenues of dialogue with them if and wherever feasible.

The mere possibility of a shared historical identity could serve as a basis for discussion between Jews and Pashtuns, one that could lead to a dampening of hostility and suspicion and perhaps lay the groundwork for a stronger relationship in the future.

In light of their fanatical theology, the Taliban are of course not an address for such efforts. But there are plenty of other Pashtuns worldwide with whom we should seek to build bridges, whether or not one believes them to be our long-lost cousins.

 

The writer is founder and chairman of Shavei Israel (www.shavei.org), which reaches out and assists the Lost Tribes of Israel and other hidden Jewish communities.

 

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