Earplug production spans decades, from the late 1800s until the 1990s and these elements of personal adornment visually depict the social history of the Zulu people of Kwa-Zulu Natal during this time.
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.
Ear plugs (isiquaza) were initially worn by Zulu men, as indicators of status, of those having completed circumcision. They signified the transition to adulthood and eligibility for marriage. The ear-lobe was cut and bamboo or training plugs ranging in scale progressively inserted into the lobe to gradually increase the dimension of the perforation. Originally these circular disks, were made from a variety of materials: Ivory and bone was used, later wood, bamboo and clay. Earplugs had smooth monochrome surfaces and reflected the artistic aesthetic of the Zulu people. At times found objects, or small containers of snuff served the purpose. Plugs ranged in scale up to 5 cms in diameter, depending on the stage of enlargement of the ear holes.
Migrant workers exposed to urbanization, employed in the mining or residential sector of large cities like Johannesburg, re-imagined these items and they perhaps lost some of their original ritual significance, developing instead into fabulous statements of fashion and adornment. After the 1930s, earplug makers were stylistically influenced by geometric details on Art Deco buildings and advertising decals (sunbeam floor polish). Traditional bead work and playing card motifs also underpinned the conception of designs.
Appreciated by viewers simply as elements of style, earplugs were seen in Johannesburg worn by the male staff of apartment blocks in Hillbrow, Killarney 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 trim, used by staff at this time.
Zulu women also started to wear these 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.
In the 1940’s some earplugs were painted or triangular pieces were cut out of the wooden plugs to form a pattern. But earplug design reached its artistic apogee in the late 40’s and 50’s, when Marley floor tiles became popular. This novel material was sourced by craftsmen to make the most fabulous of designs. Marley tiles were sliced into small segments and each piece painstakingly pinned to the sides of the wooden plug with 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.
Earplug designs included triangles, the position of which could be reversed or opposed to each other, 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 elements were sliced into different colours. But each inlay element is perfectly proportioned and the whole is indicative of brilliant design.
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.
By the 1960s and 70s designs were simplified and thick brightly coloured vinyl was used instead of Marley tiles to clad the sides of earplugs. At this time, the dimensions of these items increased proportionally as brass studs were added, also 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, but for identity and status, when called to perform marriage or traditional ceremonies, 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 conception of design, proportion and craftsmanship of these items designate them as little jems. Made in Kwa-Zulu Natal, ear plug manufacture was a business opportunity for Zulu craftsmen and they were made and 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.
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.