earplugs zulu

Earplug production spans decades, from the late 1800s until the late 1990s and these elements of personal adornment visually depict the social history of the Zulu people of Kwa-Zulu Natal during this time.


Becoming an adult in the Zulu community depended on a series of well defined steps or  progress through various age grade ceremonies, all which gradually increased the responsibility of a minor. One of the most important of these,  was the ukuqhumbuza, or ear piercing ceremony.

According to Hlengiwe Dube, Zulu beadwork. 2009:92,

“The Ukuqhumbuza ceremony was a gender inclusive rite of passage and was universally applied throughout Zululand since a person whose ears were not pierced was said to remain foolish and childish and good for nothing.”

Wearing ear plugs (isiquaza) therefore became an  indication of status, of those later having completed circumcision. They signified the transition to adulthood and eligibility for marriage.

tyrrell man with earplugs
painted by B. Tyrrell

The ukuqhumbuza ceremony culminated in the cutting of ear-lobes and bamboo or training plugs ranging in scale where progressively inserted into the lobe to gradually increase the dimension of the perforation.

Originally in historic times these circular disks, were made from a variety of materials: Ivory and bone was used, later wood, bamboo and clay.  Plugs ranged in scale, depending on the stage or enlargement of the ear holes.

Earplugs were once plain and had smooth monochrome surfaces reflecting the artistic aesthetic of the Zulu people. Later, designs were placed on the sides of the plugs or other found objects such as small containers of snuff,  equally served the purpose.

Amongst other things the stylistic development of the humble earplug epitomized the clash of cultures experienced when men conditioned to working with animal husbandry in the rural areas, left their homes to eke out a living in modern urban economies.

Migrant workers exposed to urbanization and employed in the mining or residential sector of large cities like Durban or Johannesburg, re-imagined these items and they developed into fabulous statements of fashion and adornment.

Traditional bead work motifs and playing card underpinned the conception of designs.

But after the 1930s, the earplug makers or artists, employed in the residential sectors may have also been stylistically influenced by geometric details on Art Deco buildings of which many existed in early Johannesburg and Durban.   Advertising decals on household products such as (sunbeam floor polish) were also an inspiration.

Appreciated by viewers simply as elements of style, earplugs were seen in Johannesburg worn by the male staff of apartment blocks in Hillbrow, Orange Grove, Killarney, Yeoville and Rosebank up until the 1990s.  One can speculate that the earplugs with the white ground made a sartorial statement when combined with the so called “kitchen boy” white outfit with 2 rows of red or blue trim, used by staff at this time.

The conception of design, proportion and craftsmanship of these items designate them as little gems. Ear plug manufacture was a business opportunity for Zulu craftsmen and they were marketed in Durban and Mai-Mai in Johannesburg. Craftsmen from different regions developed a signature style or motif and the production or hand of a particular artist can be identified from examples in collections.

A Zulu man with earplugs painted by Perla Siedel Gibson

Zulu women also started to wear these flamboyant earplugs brought home as gifts by their husbands in the 1950s,  Due to financial reasons, sometimes single earplugs were given as gifts, several months apart, resulting in two different patterns worn by one woman, as is evident in photography from this period.hair and earplugs

In the 1940’s  some earplug designs were painted on, or triangular pieces were cut out of  the wooden plugs to form a pattern (Nkandla area). As mentioned above, this preference could be regionally specific, result from innovation by a particular artist originating from that area. However there is also another random reason: as craftsmen sold work in various locations, earplugs made by an artist from Nkandla could be seen, through the gifting process on an Ngwane woman from the Drakensberg.i.e: B.Tyrrells drawing of cut-out plugs (1968:131).

But earplug design reached its artistic apogee in the late 40’s and 50’s, when Marley floor tiles used in the construction of apartment blocks became popular. This novel material was sourced by craftsmen to make the most fabulous of designs. Different coloured marley tiles were sliced into small segments and  each piece painstakingly pinned to the sides of the wooden plug with pieces of discarded gramaphone needles.

The resulting blue, red and green interlocking geometric patterns formed a waterproof mosaic image that appeared to float on a white ground. Many examples were worn in Msinga.

Earplug designs included triangles, the position of which could be reversed or opposed to each other, as it was in beadwork,  linear elements and  dots.   There were also suns and butterfly motifs  (which were stylized) and chevrons or zig zag patterns. The form of these geometric shapes were sliced to comprise different colours.  But each inlay element is perfectly proportioned and the whole is indicative of brilliant design.Zulu_008

The success of these designs led to many masterful variations.

Patterns, mostly of triangles derived from those on earplugs, were painted with enamel paint onto  mat rack holders, fighting sticks and dance maces at this time.

mat rack holder, 1940/50s

By the 1960s and 70s designs on earplugs were simplified and thick brightly coloured vinyl was used instead of Marley tiles to clad the sides of earplugs. The dimensions of these items increased proportionally and brass studs were added, that imparting a rich encrusted surface texture.

By the  late 1980’s urbanized Zulu men and women living in the townships no longer cut their earlobes as a sign of identity and status.  But when called to perform a marriage or traditional ceremony, wore a type of clip-on earplug instead. Each ear plug comprised 2 wooden disks decorated with vinyl pieces on the outside but joined in the middle with twisted elastic. This exerted the requisite tension to keep the plugs in place when attached to the lobe.

The sheer exuberance of these pieces reflect the colourful material culture of the Zulu people in the mid 20th century.  Other novelty items associated with Zulu people, included mat rack holders, shoes with zig zag designs ingeniously fashioned from tyres and chests covered in religious iconography.

Today, because of international prices, 1950s earplugs are faked, but one can still tell the difference between the real and not so real. Its in the positioning of the nails and the nails themselves. Sometimes the design might be skew, or lacking in sureness.

For a view into the stylistic development of Zulu womans clothing design in the last years look at the post termed: Fong kong Zulu.