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Indelible Presence in Art



The South Ndebele women of South Africa are known both for their striking clothing and for their exceptional ceremonial beadwork and large murals. 


These distinct works of art were born of a need by one of the smallest groups in Africa to express their cultural identity as well as a desire by its womenfolk to assert their individuality in a strictly patriarchal society.


Even today, they remain true to their traditional customs, which include painting, when they marry, the walls of their homes with vivid geometric designs.




No one is completely sure of the origins of the Ndebele, but it is generally accepted that about four centuries ago they migrated under Chief Muzi from present day KwaZulu-Natal and settled in the hills north-east of Pretoria. After the death of their leader, the ethnic group was riven by rivalry, which culminated in a section  moving further north.


Those who remained became the South Ndebele. While living peacefully among the Sotho/Tswana people of the region, they preserved their IsiNdebele language and maintained the customs of their ancestors.


Even so their culture and lifestyle would have been little different from that of whence they came or lived. They were pastoral and resided in kraals containing a complex of thatch beehive-shaped huts encircled by a low stone wall.


Then came trouble in the shape of Boers who trekked from the Cape Province in 1835 to establish a number of rebel states, including the Transvaal Republic with its capital at Pretoria.


Refusing to submit to the white settlers, the South Ndebele were able to hold out until 1883 when they were defeated after being holed up for nine months in their subterranean stronghold at Mapoch’s Cave. A gallant stand that so outraged the Boer leader, Paul Kruger ,that he ordered the seizure of their home lands and the dispersal of the South Ndebele as indentured farm labourers.


It was at this time that the distinctive beadwork style incorporated in the dress of the South Ndebele women first appeared. A brilliantly effective counter to the intended cultural annihilation.



The beautiful dress and accessories of South Ndebele women reflect their age, social status and love of colour. An aesthetic cultural affirmation that is in everything from the front aprons of little girls to the colourful gala blankets and spectacular costumes of married women.


Two things in particular catch the eye. First, there are the stacked rings worn round the neck, arms and legs. Married women whose husbands are yet to build them a home wear a broad studded necklace known as a rholwani.


When her house is ready this hoop is cut off and replaced by copper, brass or plastic bands called idzilo; the quantity of which denote the wealth of the husband. These becoming a permanent statement as they can never be removed because the bone and muscle structure of the wearer adjusts to them.


Second, and most striking, is the lavish beadwork decorating front aprons, skirts, tiaras and the long strips that tail behind. All featuring geometric three-dimensional patterns, which show the creativity and individuality of the wearer. These, in turn, serving as the inspiration for the mural art of South Ndebele homesteads when ethnic construction methods changed from beehive huts to circular and rectangular mud-walled dwellings in the early 20th century.




Mural Art

The vibrant South Ndebele mural art that so enlivens the sometimes drab eastern Highveld is a talent passed from mother to daughter. ‘Mural decoration is the prerogative of the woman; it denotes her unique and intimate relationship with the indlu (home) and her passive response to being exploited socially and politically,’ wrote Margaret Courtney-Clarke in Ndebele.


Using their fingers and feathers, the original artists painted with materials found in nature – ochre, cow dung, charcoal and the pigments from the white, red, yellow and grey clays of the area. Then came washing blue, followed by bright commercial and acrylic paints to free a rainbow of possibilities.


An evolutionary process also evident in the style, which began with abstract, mesmerising triangular and rectangular renditions that soon included contemporary motifs such as aeroplanes, car number plates and television aerials. What is remarkable is that all this is achieved freehand without preparatory sketches, rulers or mathematical instruments.


The most celebrated of these artists is Esther Nikwambi Mahlangu. Born in Middleburg in 1936, she was invited in 1989 to exhibit at the Pompidou Art Museum in Paris, France. Since then she has painted the home of the Ndebele royal family, a fire screen at the Civic Theatre in Johannesburg and the walls of the Ndebele Museum Village at Botshabelo.


She has also received critical acclaim in the United States, Europe, Japan and Australia; and been commissioned by BMW to paint one of their motorcars for their Art Car Collection, which includes work by renowned international artists such as Andy Warhol.


‘My mother and grandmother taught me to paint when I was ten years old,’ she says. ‘I have been busy with it ever since and have always liked it. When I am painting my heart is very wide, it reaches out. It makes me feel very, very happy.’


With thanks to the South African Tourist Board.



For the South Ndebele see www.sahistory.org.za/pages/specialprojects/kwamsiza/menu.html

For Ndebele Art go to www.ndebele.org / www.esthermahlangu.co.za

For the Ndebele Museum Village see www.middleburgsa.co.za/botshabelo/ndebele.htm

To get there visit www.dinokengtouristguide.co.za / www.southafrica-travel.net/north/a1mpuma2.htm / www.kwalata.co.za


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