Once Mahlangu – or “Gogo Esther”, as most people call her – begins recounting anecdotes of her life and experiences as an artist in Ndebele, interspersed with snatches of Sesotho, you wish she could continue uninterrupted for hours on end. And suddenly, the two-and-a-half-hour pothole-ridden drive it’s taken to meet her in Emthombothini village, outside KwaMhlanga in Mpumalanga, seems worthwhile.

Her yard is a hive of activity on the day of our shoot, yet even with the many faces in it, she still remembers who she has and hasn’t greeted. The only memory lapses she has are recalling the exact dates of some significant milestones or how old her now late sons were at the beginning of her remarkable career. For the rest, though, her storytelling is as vivid and lucid as one of her artworks.

Asked how she became an integral part of SA’s heritage and an asset to brands seeking to deliver out-of-the ordinary marketing campaigns, she says it all began with her first paintings at the age of 10. Later, a trip to France opened up numerous opportunities for her on the local and international art scene.

As a young woman, Gogo Esther left her three sons at home while she worked at a museum in Middelburg, Mpumalanga. While she was there, her village was visited by French curators who had photographed several hand-painted Ndebele houses in it.