ndebele mapoto3

In this 3rd part on Ndebele beadwork I list garments worn by women and girls.  I briefly discuss curio items, reflecting on the fact that to fully represent the beading tradition, the production of beaded curios needs accommodation into the stylistic corpus of the people.  

Commercialised beadwork grew organically from the heart of an existing tradition. The production of items for the curio industry led to financial independence for women within a patriarchal society and amongst other things, perpetuated crafting skills. The vibrant clash of materials, use of shiny metal elements and beads worn in accumulations as a sophisticated style by the Ndebele was considered marvellous by viewers.  During the 1970-80s the popularity of Ndebele beadwork saw it disseminated globally. An advantage was that these beautiful art works enlightened international designers to our dynamic beading tradition.

Amongst the best in the world, Ndebele beadwork is comparable to the first nations and the exceptional Victorian traditions of the late 1800s. Victorian beadwork like those of the Ndebele were generally anonymous, a common feature amongst most European crafters in the early 1900s. Lettering however, was used first as a design element  by the Ndebele from 1920 onwards and expressed in all work.

Amongst items for sale in the 1970-80s, were both beadwork made expressly for the curio market and items made and worn within the traditional context, prior to sale. Generally, the later sold for a higher price. Because of this, another category for sale were deceptive items: new, but made to look old by rubbing the back with engine oil and dung in order to mimic old well used pieces and then offered for more.

Tourists, locals, designers, researchers amongst others bought Ndebele beadwork. As mementoes, or because they were amazed at the beadwork, enjoyed the light translucent quality of the glass beads, or recognised that the style contributed something unique and intensely alive to the worlds artistic heritage.

Facts indicate not only garments sold but all forms of beadwork. Whether old, new, traditional or invented, providing clues to the mediums universal charm and marketability, for example: Dolls dressed in diminutive versions of traditional garments, were commercialized, grew rapidly in scale, sold in plethora at curio outlets, their function changing from the traditional role of playthings or fertility aids, to become ornamental sculpture.

Initially at this time, some buyers were confused by the differences between worn items and curios, requiring confirmation on how the latter fitted in to the corpus of the beading tradition. Well, all beadwork was produced by women making aprons to wear at home, so it is all one production… But curio items were said to differ from made to wear garments, as the dimensions were smaller, requiring less beads, less labour to complete, showed more backing.  The motifs also differed from the conventions on aprons worn at home.  The colour palette changed and is more inventive, as various hues were utilized. Pieces destined for tourism merely became a new branch of an existing tree, developing as an additional creative entity and fulfilling a need in the interior design and fashion sector. Celebrated artists made items for this market and the hand of a master is always obvious, identified by their flair, manipulation of style, technical prowess, colour choice and idiosyncrasies.

Academics currently state that dissemination of beadwork makes it problematic to decipher the historical relevance of a piece. Yes it does, research always presenting challenges.  Work may show older strips of beadwork added to recently made items, mimicking the traditional practice, of recycling beads. Therefore an item made in the 1950s, may show evidence of earlier beads from the 1920s, requiring thorough investigation. Besides the historical aspect, the context and meaning of any piece, at any time is constantly changing, according to the current perception of what art, fashion and culture is and means.

Today, a common critique is that fashion designers sometimes appropriate Ndebele style. It is an ethical no-no but fiendishly difficult to prove from a legal perspective. An advantage might be that designs similar to those of the Ndebele sharpen the viewers’ curiosity for the style, generating more interest in the Ndebele people and their culture.  Collaborative involvement with indigenous peoples for future business ventures in fashion beadwork would be beneficial.

Pragmatically adapting to change and new ideas, contemporary bead workers in South Africa assimilate techniques and designs from other Nguni people, such as the Zulu. (This might also be classed as appropriation, so where does one draw the line?). Women making tourist beadwork at Rosebank, cater for a variety of tastes, displaying a more inclusive idea of what South African beadwork offers and therefore using a more sophisticated marketing strategy.

Worn by Ndebele women and girls in the past and today on ceremonial occasions, the below list of garments does not include bead work worn by men or boys:

Love is endorsed by mothers who gift ighabi to their daughters, who would wear this form of cache-sexe from infancy to puberty.  Tied around the waist, ighabi comprise a large rectangular band (covered in beads) with a string fringe below. In the 1920/30s mostly white beads, with dark blue/black colour after the 1960s. Sometimes bead loops are sewn at an angle, creating triangular shapes across the band reminiscent of the beadwork of their neighbours, the Sotho and Pedi people. Each string tassel is weighted by several large beads at the bottom creating movement and sound when walking.

iPhephetu: This is an unpliable, rectangular flat apron, made from canvas, by girls or their mothers for their puberty rites ceremony. In 1930, it was generally framed by a blue and a white border round the entire piece with the central panel divided into two horizontal sections. Images depicted on one piece, related to a contraction in time.  The initiation hut is depicted in the top 1/3rd referencing both their tradition and coming of age ceremony and below, depictions of their aspirations for the future, a stylized home with indoor plumbing and electricity.  The composition was simplified after 1985 and changed to comprise one large image per apron.  As with all aprons, colour after the 1960 and 70 became dark blue/black and green. After 2000, colour reverted to predominantly white, with small dark motifs. A thick horizontal line became a popular feature.

Amaphotho:  A Large rectangular goatskin beaded apron, worn by married women with an uneven border on the bottom comprising a centrally fringed area, with decorative tassels and two rectangular flaps on either side.    Like the back-skirt, isithimba, it generally has a row of metal beads adorning the top and is beaded more sparsely than the ijogolo. The front is divided horizontally into two, with stylized images of architecture. The dark colour palette reverted to white after 2000 with same motifs as the iphephetu.

Ijogolo: was worn by married women after the birth of the first child. This is a grand apron, generally used on ceremonial occasions, like a son’s initiation ceremony. It is characterized by a rectangular section with 5 rounded flaps or fingers that point downwards. Occasionally two small appendages occur at the sides.(This is purported to designate second wife  status). The same changes in style and colour occurred in the 1960s.

Ngubu: The so called Middleburg blanket, striped red, green, yellow and blue was procured first in the Middleburg area in the 1930s.  It was appropriated, becoming an integral part of Ndebele status and identity, as a shoulder covering for all married women. This commercial item is heavily beaded. It comprises a series of horizontal bands of beaded pattern with motifs and regular proportioned spaces between them, imparting a rhythm and classical format to the work.  The beaded strips and panels are encoded with the unique personal histories of the wearer and thereby the entire piece acts as a mnemonic document. Similar colour changes occurred in the 1960/70s. After 2000, other blanket designs besides the “Middleburg” are used.

Linaga: goatskin cloaks are worn by married women. Simple white beaded borders on shaved goatskin were popular. Sections of skin contrast heavily embellished flat panels of beads.

Nyoga: veil or train worn by married women at ceremonial occasions.  There are two versions of this, some short and photographed worn in front of the body and some long, worn draped behind the head and back. This discrepancy may reveal regional differences or allude to the effects of tourism.

Imilingakobe: (long tears) are two long thin strips worn hanging from a headband, as a signifier, down either side of the body by married women at the time of their son’s initiation ceremony.

After 2003, many South African women converted to occasionally wearing trousers and most changed to Western dress. However, beaded garments are still worn on ceremonial occasions, at births, puberty rites, marriages, and funerals.  In effect, the commercialization of Ndebele art tested the market, forming a foundation for the endless possibilities of beadwork as a future creative enterprise. The relevant question now is how bead workers will adapt and reinvent their work for new platforms in contemporary fashion and craft?


Appropriation, a complex subject is also discussed in another blog called fong kong Zulu.