Extracts from http://www.krugerpark.co.za/africa_ndebele.html
The Ndebele people of Southern Africa are divided into four sub-tribes, of which two of these, the Manala and the Ndzundza live mainly in the Pretoria and Mpumalanga area of South Africa. Although the Ndebele originally formed part of the Nguni, today the Ndebele is a unique tribe with a unique language, si-Ndebele, which is not even understood by most other black tribes.
The Ndzundza, comprising of only about 20,000 people, is the only Ndebele group of whom only a few still practice the decorative art of painting and beadwork.
Ndebele women traditionally adorned themselves with a variety of ornaments, each symbolising her status in society. After marriage, dresses became increasingly elaborate and spectacular. In earlier times, the Ndebele wife would wear copper and brass rings around her arms, legs and neck, symbolising her bond and faithfulness to her husband, once her home was built.
Married women also wore neck hoops made of grass (called isigolwani) twisted into a coil and covered in beads, particularly for ceremonial occasions. Isigolwani are sometimes worn as neckpieces and as leg and arm bands by newly wed women whose husbands have not yet provided them with a home, or by girls of marriageable age after the completion of their initiation ceremony.
In addition to the rings,
The marriage blanket (nguba) worn by married women was decorated with beadwork to record significant events throughout the woman’s lifetime.
A married woman always wore some form of head covering as a sign of respect for her husband. These ranged from a simple beaded headband or a knitted cap to elaborate beaded headdresses (amacubi).
Long beaded strips signified that the woman’s son was undergoing the initiation ceremony and indicated that the woman had now attained a higher status in Ndebele society. It symbolised joy because her son had achieved manhood as well as the sorrow at losing him to the adult world.
Decorative House Painting
Extracts adapted from http://www.homegirlinc.com/women-ndebele.html and
Decorative geometric patterning is a signature of Ndebele cultural artform. Far from simply aesthetic adornment, these forms play a paramount role in preserving Ndebele heritage, reinforcing social relationships and speaking out against their history of social oppression.
The Ndebele’s essential artistic skill has always been understood to be the ability to combine exterior sources of stimulation with traditional design concepts borrowed from their ancestors.
The Ndebele were large land holders and fierce warriors who were able to defend their lands against encroaching Boer farmers. Autumn 1883, brought intense war between the Boers (armies of the Zuid Afrikaanse Republiek) and the Ndzundza under Chief Nyabela.
Loubser confirms that, "owing to the difficult circumstances of the Ndzundza, the paintings became an expression of both cultural resistance and continuity." White farmers, who distinctly "saw themselves as politically more powerful and culturally superior," viewed this cultural form as decorative and not harmful, thus allowed it to continue (Loubser, 1994, p. 5).
In fact, more often than not, these examples of creativity [images/forms/songs, etc.] were signs which could be "read" as messages to the oppressed group. Like the African American quilts, as "instruments of cultural transmission" (Freeman, 1996, p.xviii), that frequently served as guideposts to members of the "group" in transit, so the wall paintings of the Ndebele became guideposts to the indigenous persons passing on the road. They announce that "We are Ndebele. Ndebele live here.
One artist described the chevron pattern on her wall as important to her family clan. For the 28 years of her marriage there have been mhlope, "white," the overcomer, and mnyama, "darkness," the balancer, surrounding her, and visually affirming her and other family clan members. Rich (1995) presents a strong picture of the Ndebele "architectural permanence" as directly related to the women single-handedly carrying on the family traditions, and the developing a wall art form to bring "formality" and order to the homestead (p. 74).
This visual language is constructed through family communications and group consensus among the women creators (Levy, 1989). These paintings are a communications system. They "speak" to the families. In addition to conveying self-identity, personal prayers, values and emotions, the wall painting has become deeply ingrained in the family marriage tradition.
The married women of the household were responsible for designing images for the outer gates, front and side walls, and sometimes interior rooms as well."Through her painting the artist is saying that she is a good Ndebele wife who keeps a proper and well-decorated home" (Schneider, 1985, p. 64).
This activity along with the beadwork production, were two of the traditional duties of the woman of the household, which allowed for the transfer of patterning strategies from mother to daughter, and from female in-laws to new Ndebele wives secured from other indigenous groups.
The early wall art designs and symbolic forms are derivative of the centuries old Ndebele beadwork forms and patterns (Levinsohn, 1985). Earliest wall art indications show tonal patterns painted by the women with their fingers on the cone-on-cylinder, "rondawel" houses which had mud/dung walls (Hansen, 1995-1996, p. 46). Natural pigments were used, with monochrome ochres, browns, black and limestone whitewash being the initial hues. Using these earthen tones, size, direction and pattern of the lines were more important in aesthetically pleasing walls than polychrome color. Traveling today in this same Nebo area of the Northern Province, the black soot lines and limestone whitewash, in addition to red and dark red, sky blue, yellow-gold, green and occasionally a pink could be seen painted in the wall patterns. For decades these same five hues tend to be the main ones visually present.
Today the impact of a world of cultures coming into an Ndebele home that has electricity and television, has fostered transformations in their traditional symbolic painted forms, but those images still signify that "Ndebele live here."
Another change is the addition of stylised representational forms to the typical traditional abstract geometric designs. Many Ndebele artists have now also extended their artwork to the interior of houses.
Beadwork is intricate and time consuming and requires a deft hand and good eyesight. This pastime has long been a social practice in which the women engaged after their chores were finished but today, many projects involve the production of these items for sale to the public.Since many Ndebele people live mostly in remote areas of the country where there are few or no job opportunities, it is imperative for their survival that they should find commercial outlets and markets for their unique and colourful art. Given the current situation of isolation and illiteracy, this is not always an easy task, and they are often exploited.
The most remarkable example of contemporary Ndebele art success has been Esther Mahlangu who is now an international name.The 1991 BMW Project:
In 1975 French auctioneer and racing driver, Herv Poulain, approached BMW with his dream of combining his two passions, motor-sport and art. The idea caught on and Alexander Calder was commissioned to convert Poulain’s BMW 3.0 CSL into a fiery artwork for the four hour race in Le Mans. This car became the first in a series of BMW Art Cars. The concept proved to be a hugely successful promotional tool, inspiring BMW to continue commissioning famous international artists to decorate special racing cars.
Today the BMW Art Collection contains fifteen automotive works of art. Significant artists from nine countries from every continent are represented in the collection. BMW’s sponsorship of artistic interaction with the world of technology is aimed at creating intercultural dialogue as an instrument for tolerance and understanding in a culturally diverse world.
Read more about her journey at