Esther Mahlangu sneakers
The AJ1 sneakers customised by Esther Mahlangu on display at the Expo 2020 Dubai (Image supplied by Prince Menzi Mthethwa)
  • A unique pair of Air Jordan 1 sneakers were unveiled at the Expo 2020 Dubai.
  • These sneakers are customised by South African contemporary artist Esther Mahlangu, world-renowned for her colourful Ndebele-inspired designs.
  • Although they're valued at around $500,000 or R7.7 million, the shoes, hand-painted with a chicken feather, aren't for sale.
  • Instead, they're going on a world tour, where showcasing fees will pay for scholarships at the Ayashisa Amateki academy which commissioned Mahlangu.
  • For more stories go to www.BusinessInsider.co.za.

A unique pair of proudly South African sneakers, worth an estimated $500,000 or R7.7 million, were unveiled in Dubai on Friday.

The Expo 2020 Dubai, which was postponed by a year because of the global Covid-19 pandemic, hosts 192 participating nations, each with their own pavilion inside the 45,000-square-metre exhibition centre. The event, which started in October and is expected to run for six months, also welcomed South Africa.

The South African Pavilion features a variety of exhibitions, live performances, souvenirs, interactive investment hubs, and fashion displays. In the last week of October, the pavilion hosted Ayashisa Amateki, a South African shoe start-up which focuses on documenting sneaker culture and customising highly sought-after footwear with a local flair.

A range of sneakers were on display, each customised to represent South Africa's 11 official languages.

The biggest reveal was a pair Air Jordans (AJ1), customised by 85-year-old South African contemporary artist Esther Mahlangu. Mahlangu is world renowned for her colourful Ndebele-inspired art which has adorned a classic BMW, Rolls-Royce Phantom, British Airways airplane, and bottles of Belvedere vodka in collaboration with Grammy-award winning singer John Legend.

Ayashisa Amateki, founded by Prince Menzi Mthethwa, commissioned Mahlangu to customise the AJ1 sneakers, which, after their display in Dubai, will be showcased in galleries in Paris, London, and New York.

Esther Mahlangu sneakers
Esther Mahlangu hand-painting the AJ1 sneakers (Image supplied by Prince Menzi Mthethwa)

"It is the most relevant medium to communicate to younger generations about culture," Mthethwa told Business Insider South Africa of merging local art and sneaker culture.

"It has given, not just the Ndebele culture but other cultures, a voice to be heard, a sense of pride. Millennials and Gen Zs aren't visiting museums as much, tectonic plates have shifted, the sneaker serves as a museum itself."

Although the sneakers are valued at R7.7 million – slightly less than Michael Jordan's original 1985 pair which recently fetched $560,000 (R8.6 million) at a Sotheby's auction – the real value, according to Mthethwa, is in a showcasing fee which supports development of South African artists through the Ayashisa Amateki academy.

Esther Mahlangu sneakers
Esther Mahlangu hand-painting the AJ1 sneakers (Image supplied by Prince Menzi Mthethwa)

"We've got a lot of students that have sent us their portfolios that want to study, but they don't have the money," said Mthethwa, who added that every time the customised sneakers are on displays, the funding from that exhibition is used to cover a scholarship at the academy.

The academy teaches the art of sneaker customisation. Like Mahlangu, the students are taught to paint designs using chicken feathers as opposed to horsehair brushes.

"Customising with a chicken feather is very difficult. And sourcing these feathers is a little bit of a challenge as well because we have to get the organic chicken from the Ndebele [region]."

Mthethwa added that before the Mahlangu-designed AJ1 sneakers head on a global tour, they'll first be brought back to South Africa, where locals will also have an opportunity to see the creations.

"Before it goes to Paris, we're going to do a national tour. We must give South Africans a peak of what we have before it goes out… or people need to have access to this thing," said Mthethwa, who added that there was no intention to sell the sneakers.

"They're not for sale [and] we don't intend on selling them. In the foreseeable future, it's not going anywhere."

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