Maths award for Esther Mahlangu’s geometric designs

World-renowned Ndebele artist Esther Mahlangu’s work is not only sought-after, but also a study in geometry.

This will be confirmed when the University of South Africa (Unisa) awards the decorated 88-year-old with an honorary doctoral degree in Mathematics on Tuesday.

Mathematical prowess

“Mahlangu will be awarded an honorary doctorate in recognition of her mathematical prowess,” the university said.

The artist is among 12 eminent people who will be honoured as part of the university’s autumn graduation season. The season began this week and will conclude on May 31.

This week, the university honoured the first female presiding bishop in the Methodist Church of Southern Africa. Bishop Purity Malinga was conferred the honorary doctorate in theology on Thursday. The late music icon Ray Phiri was posthumously awarded an honorary doctorate in musicology on Friday.

Visual arts honour

Sculptor Angus Van Zyl Taylor was recognised for his contribution to visual arts. He was also honoured for nurturing the talents of young and developing artist on Wednesday.  

At the opening of the autumn graduations, Unisa principal and vice-chancellor Prof Puleng LenkaBula said Mahlangu’s work transcends art.

“It is our firm conviction that her work is a form of mathematics and should thus be recognised as such.

“As an African university, we have a responsibility to recognise and affirm our indigenous knowledge systems. To also ensure that they do not play second fiddle to other knowledge systems in the world,” she said. 

Retrospective exhibition 

A retrospective of Mahlangu’s career of over 50 years is currently on show at Iziko South African National Gallery in Cape Town. Titled, Then I Knew I was Good at Painting: Esther Mahlangu, a Retrospective, it opened on February 18. It is set to run until August 11. Thereafter, it will move to Wits Arts Museum. The global tour of the retrospective starts in early 2026 in the US.

Featuring more than 100 artworks on loan from international collections, the exhibition is accompanied by historic photos and a short film. It also includes the display of the historic collaboration with the German carmaker for the BMW 525i Art Car.

Luxury car art collection

In 1991, Mahlangu was the first woman and first African to be invited to participate in the prestigious BMW Art Car Collection. However, this would not be the first and last time that she was asked to put her bold art on a vehicle.

More recently, in 2020, she also became the first South African artist to be invited to paint an artwork for the new Rolls-Royce Phantom.  

Mahlangu has been awarded several honorary doctoral degrees. They include the University of Johannesburg and Durban University of Technology in 2018. Also Tshwane University of Technology in 2022.

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