Esther Mahlangu hands me a chicken feather. She teaches me how to strip it and save a little tuft at the tip. She shows me how I'm supposed to hold it, dipping it into jet black paint. I follow her example and trace a pattern onto a swatch of canvas. When she stops to examine my work, she clasps her hands together. "This is Ndebele," she whispers, referring to the centuries-old culture and traditions of the Ndebele people.
Mahlangu, 82, is an artist and a teacher. She lives in the Mpumalanga province in South Africa, where she was born; the closest town is about two hours away. Around the village, the huts and gazebos are decorated with her characteristic geometric patterns. Every wall, every door, even the windowpanes, displays another one of her masterpieces. But her works are not restricted to the Mpumalanga province. She has traveled the world, showing in museums across Europe and North America, fulfilling commissions for the likes of BMW and British Airways.
Most recently, Mahlangu has teamed up with Belvedere Vodka, John Legend, and (RED), the Bono-founded charitable organization, to raise awareness about AIDS and STIs. Belvedere tapped Mahlangu, who never drinks, to create a special-edition bottle of the vodka. Fifty percent of the proceeds will be donated to the Global Fund to eradicate HIV/AIDS.