Tantalizing the imaginations of artists and designers, the iconic art of Ndebele women has graced the surfaces of aeroplanes, motor vehicles, walls and the body, reaching international acclaim. But this wasn’t always so.
The art of the Southern Ndebele people has a complex history, surviving in spite of turmoil, oppression and political resistance. Fleeing from Mzilikazi and the Zulu wars in Natal during the mid-1800s, the Ndebele moved north into the Highveld and Transvaal area. Clans became scattered over a large area, from Pretoria to Middleburg and Lydenburg in the East. Outside Pretoria they were later dispossessed of their homes, became indentured to Boer farmers in 1880 and endured forced relocations during the apartheid era. Some to a dry, desolate region referred to as kwaNdebele, where they enduring hardship, drought and famine. Despite these desperate conditions, some Manala and Ndzundza clans became known for their resilience, managing to develop their beautiful culture and artistic heritage.
Ndebele people began imitating the architectural structures and aesthetics of their Sotho and Pedi neighbours in the Transvaal in the 1800s. This specific architectural change led them to construct mud houses with a series of court yards delignated by walls, at the front and rear of the homestead. Later, pillars and yard entrances became a relevant feature, often geometric or stepped in form, integrating European architecture in the form of Cape Dutch and art deco styles. The outward facing walls formed a perfect canvas for decoration. Mural designs were created initially by pulling fingers through oxide or dung to create areas of wavy lines on walls or floor. Today this decorating method is still incorporated into more complex patterns as an acknowledgement to their past and a technique learnt from the Sotho and Pedi forebears. But, creative Ndebele women soon developed their own unique vision for walls, set of skills and method of application. Homestead murals in the rural areas were acknowledged as art works and photographed by Constance Stuart Larrabee. Her sensitive record gives us an insight into their painting at this time.
Artists in different areas developed independently, so murals were unique. However their abstract images, persistent focus on geometry, proportion, colour and architectural motif identified what we know as their artistic style. According to architect Peter Rich, 2008. “… one can find all the clues to understanding their architecture in the more complex aprons designed by Ndzundza women. The classical design principals of symmetry, bilateral symmetry, asymmetry, axiality, measure and proportion are all there.”
Photograph: Constance Stuart Larrabee
Women initially painted mural designs with chicken feathers, using various oxides and washing blue. After the 1960s, commercial PVA paint in various colours and brushes provided a smoother more even finish to walls and was waterproof. It enabled the production of concise geometric patterns and reinforced the visual symmetry of their homes. Chonat Getz. 2008, “ …sees a design language that speaks of proportion and symmetry. This language is a skill that Ndebele women inherit from their mothers and grandmothers”. In some cases, the act of mural painting, like beadwork, became competitive, associated with the moral attributes of a good wife.
photograph: Constance Stuart Larrabee
From 1930 onwards, Nettleton. A. 1988, argues that the development of mural style may have been influenced by Government anthropologists producing Ndebele villages at Botshebelo and KwaMsiza for the tourist market. One could speculate that these designs may have changed the visual language of Ndebele women, while at the same time fostering a greater awareness of the expressive qualities of their art form.
Over time, the subject matter of murals changed. These abstract images were synthesized from exposure to everyday objects or elements of modernity. In 1995, Ivor Powell wrote” In many cases the new imagery included on walls was a depiction of things seen in the suburban domestic homes where women were, and still are employed as domestic workers”. Some motifs reflected the design of razor blades, (itijhefana), taps and indoor plumbing, traffic signs, arrows, electric lights, street lights, windows, shutters, steps and lettering. These motifs appear on both murals and aprons from the 1930s onwards. Later, using a greater range of colours, sequences of these abstract images, especially razor blades, signified the development of a more complex iconography. Designs in certain areas, or amongst certain clans, were outlined initially with a white line and when the fashion changed, with black for greater effect.
During forced removals, women suffered the breakdown of family and stability and after the 1970s, symbolic elements of political resistance were encoded into murals. Women and children also bore the brunt of famine and countrywide drought in 1986. Out of necessity, they drew on their diverse crafting skills to generate income. These artists were adaptable, moving with alacrity from abstract images painted on two dimensional wall surfaces and beaded aprons, to creating three dimensional beaded objects such as dolls, dance maces, bowls, beaded brooms and household items.
Tourism at Botshebelo provided one outlet for the commercialization of Ndebele beadwork and craft, keeping these skills alive. Artists adapted to catering for several markets at once: the tourist market providing foreigners with mementoes, generally of a smaller dimension, using less beads and a collectors market where old, worn items were recycled and sold for considerably more. In 1980, Ina Perlman, appalled by conditions in Limpopo, started Operation Hunger, a non-profit national feeding and self-help scheme to alleviate poverty and famine in the rural areas. By 1993, 2 million people benefitted from this scheme and 200 000 others were involved in income generating programs where women sold their beadwork. An outlet for these was Operation Hungers shop in Braamfontein, Johannesburg, selling curios, dolls and art, creating a craze for Ndebele products in 1980-1994. Modern in its simplicity and vitality, this work appealed across various artistic disciplines, however, perhaps on a subliminal level, the abstract images and dark colours of Ndebele art resonated with viewers as the appropriate icons of the time, to reflect apartheids darkest days. The constant publicity supporting Operation Hunger and the photographer Margaret Courtney Clarke promoted Ndebele style, making it accessible to the public and the world. It soon gleaned the attention of international magazines who featured celebrities like Iman, looking fabulous draped over Ndebele walls in 1992.
In the 1970 and 80s when Peter Magubane photographed Ndebele women, the wearing of blankets and beaded aprons was still common. Ndebele women, in full ceremonial dress, could carry an extra 30-40 kg on their person. So in effect, acquiring quantities of beads, which were sold by weight, was a substantial financial investment and together with her garments, indicative of the wearer’s status. Besides the value of beads, the ingenuity of the designs, aesthetic cohesion, skill and enterprise involved to complete an item were considered necessary accomplishments elevating the wearers standing amongst her peers.
Initially, tiny white clay beads were used, later glass beads comprising the bulk of these garments were preferred due to their consistency in shape, size and colour. They were used from the 1800s onwards and were imported from Bohemia (later Czechoslovakia), and were called preciosa beads, made initially in cottage industries and later at the Jablonex factory. They arrived at the Cape and Delagoa Bay by ship, were then conveyed in wagons across rugged terrain before being distributed at trading stores and through peddlers in the Pretoria, Middleburg and Eastern Transvaal area. The difficulty of access to this commodity added to their perceived worth.
The distinctive Ndebele dress promoted identity, was indicative of amongst others, the owners age, marital status and puberty rites school. Although beaded within the style of the people, the designs and patterns on aprons and blankets were unique, each reinvented by the maker in a variety of way.
photograph: Alfred Duggan Cronin. Mcgregor Museum, Kimberley.
In the early 1900s, Ndebele beadwork was predominantly white in colour. Alfred Duggan Cronin’s photograph of this beautiful woman depicts how bridal garments were worn at the time. Examples also show intricate filigree detailing. The production of this three dimensional effect required complex technical skills to master. Although the application is uniquely Ndebele, it may be another illustration of their versatility, as this lacy work is reminiscent of the beaded household items, milk covers made by European women in the early 1900s.
One of the strengths is the evident adaptability to change, the assimilation of new ideas imparting a life, variety and depth to the stylistic corpus. In the same vein, Beads and found objects from old work are recycled, as is evident in collections.
In the late 1920s and 1930s, coloured beads in turquoise blue, pink and black were added to the white palette, creating small motifs, images of homesteads or diagrams from mural painting.
Photograph: Peter Magubane
By the 1940s, Confidence in their robust visual language grew and young women depicted their aspirations for stability, home and family onto both their murals and aprons. These representations evolved over time slowly charting the change from rural to a more urban world. So images of mod-cons such as taps, allude to the desires for indoor plumbing and electric light, double storied houses, pools, or more recently after 2000, satellite dishes for dstv became a feature. These ambitions and positive images of home and environment, beaded onto pepetus and mapotos, served as idealized “’vision boards” long before this term was coined in the West.
Besides images of home, stylized aeroplanes, portrayed as a graphic overhead shadow, appeared in the 1970 and 80s, referring to surveillance and also the lure of foreign travel and far-away places.
Predictably, following the above concept, Ester Mahlangu, a prominent Ndebele artist, who should be a national treasure, was commissioned in 1997 to paint the tail of a British airways plane, making Ndebele style airborne throughout the globe and realizing in part, perhaps the vision and aspiration of young girls, years before.
Continued in part 2
REFERENCES AND READING:
Courtney-Clarke. M. 1986. Ndebele. The art of an African tribe. Rizzoli. N.Y.
Gertz. C. 2008. From eye to mind. The mathematics of Southern Ndebele Design. In Africa meets Africa. Ndebele women designing identity.
Goldblatt. D. 1989, The transported of Kwandebele: A South African Odyssey. Aperture Books. N/Y
Magubane. P. 2005. AmaNdebele. Sunbird Publishing (Pty) ltd
Nettleton. A. 1988. Myth of the transitional: Black art and white markets in South Africa. S. Afr .J. Cult. Art History, 2(4).
Town and country. Jan.1 1992. http://www.townandcountry.com/society/tradition/a1038/iman/
Powell. Ivor. 1995. Ndebele- A people and their Art. N.Y. Cross River press.
Vogel. Catherine. 1984. “Traditional mural art of the Pedi of Sekhukhuneland”. African Insight, vol: 14, no: 4.