The 81-year-old painter and mural artist earned an international reputation with her Ndebele motifs at a time when the art scene in her home country was focused on contemporary styles.
Now Johannesburg is hosting a major exhibition for Mahlangu, an elderly black woman with no art training who rose to global acclaim using a skill passed down for generations.
With just a chicken feather, Mahlangu first painted mud huts and chipboards before moving on to luxury cars, vodka bottles, skateboards and footwear as her intricate patterns became huge commercial hits.
“Working with famous people has not changed me,” she told AFP.
“I am not intimidated by anything and not even once have I changed who I am to fit in with their culture.”
In Paris, she painted a replica of her hut for an exhibition.
“My aim is to preserve the Ndebele culture. I don’t want it to get lost with civilisation,”
German carmaker BMW has collaborated with Mahlangu on two occasions, when she painted the body of their luxury sedans with her iconic Ndebele shapes.
Her first collaboration with the company in 1991 made her the first woman to be invited to take part in the Art Car project, following in the footsteps of Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein.
“Painting the car was exciting. I never felt under pressure,” she said.
The car has been displayed in major exhibitions around the world, and in February ended a four-month show at the British Museum.
South Africa was not quick to recognise Mahlangu’s talent, though she has had solo exhibitions in Cape Town.
In 2006 she was given a presidential award.
“I had to travel to Pretoria to accept it,” she said. “It made me proud to be seen as doing something for the people.”
“I may no longer have the same energy as I used to, but I can still do everything.”