The History of the Ndebele Wallpainting Project, the Ndebele People, and their Art

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Beadwork / Wallpainting Traditions and Techniques / A Brief History of the Ndebele / Weaving

Wallpainting Traditions and Techniques

For over a hundred years, the Ndebele have decorated the outside of their homes with designs. Before the mid 19th century, the Ndebele lived in grass huts. During the years of the Difaqane (scattering of the people during the Boer wars), the Ndebele mixed with their Sotho and Pedi neighbors, which resulted in the Ndebele switching from grass to mud walls in their house construction. They also integrated their cultural traditions, adopting the originally Sotho practice of decorating their walls with finger painting.

finger patterns in plaster

One form of early design was made with earth pigments, ranging from bright yellow to brown. The pigments were ground up and mixed with liquid to form a "paint" that was used to decorate door and window frames, bordered with charcoal.

The second form of early designs were made by dragging the fingers through wet plaster, usually cow dung, to leave a variety of markings, from squiggles and zigzags to straight lines. In this form of painting, the entire wall was divided into sections, and each section was filled in with contrasting finger paint patterns. In the Ndebele belief system, it is only this older form of painting that has any spiritual significance, and is believed to be demanded by the ancestors to create cultural continuity. Some Ndebele claim that sickness and bad luck would come to those who did not recognize the ancestors. This form of decoration is still acknowledged by contemporary painters, who decorate the ground in front of a new wallpainting with these older designs. In this way the artists acknowledge their ancestor's ways, blending the old with the new.

Artist Nyathela Nghodela finger painting with cow dung in the traditional style to commemorate the completion of the mural

The contemporary form of wallpainting is a surprisingly recent phenomena, and is linked to the history of the people themselves. After the indenture of the Ndebele in 1888, many of the freed Ndebele migrated to Hartebeesfontein. In 1923, they became separated from their King, and again found themselves in exile from the symbols of their tribal identity.

Living among Afrikaner farmers and Sotho neighbors, the continued cultural identity of the Ndebele was threatened. Those in the north in time increasingly adopted the Sotho language and other cultural traits. The southern Ndebele, the Ndzundza and Manala, by contrast, kept their Nguni language, persisted in ceremonials such as First Fruits rites and initiation, and made their particular identity highly visible in their homes and dress. Under the most extreme conditions of marginalization, significant developments in Ndebele painting emerged and flourished.

It is women who have been the practitioners of the artistic forms that are such striking Ndebele cultural markers. In beadwork and wallpainting, women have an outlet for the expression of their experience of the world, of their aspirations, and of their identity as individuals and as part of a group. The first paintings' imagery came primarily from the women's beadwork traditions that go back hundreds of years. The early paintings were geometric and primarily decorative. Over the decades, the painters' style quickly developed and the artists began to incorporate imagery from their lives, particularly the details drawn from their work as domestic servants in white households in the cities. Electric lights, swimming pools, multistory houses, telephones, airplanes, and water taps all appear prominently in Ndebele paintings. Artists have been quoted as saying that because they want these things for themselves, they paint them on their homes. Read literally, the symbols and designs in Ndebele wallpainting reflect the aspirations of the painter, and ultimately, the community.

To begin a wallpainting, the artists divide the wall into sections and then snap chalk lines diagonally across each section.

Next, the artists begin painting the black outline of the design for each section. Painting is done freehand, without a scale design layout done beforehand. Neither rulers nor squares are used, and yet symmetry, proportion and straight edges are exactly maintained.

Wall section prior to painting
Blank wall panel
Nyathela beginning a section design with black outlines

Then, the black outline is filled in with color, and white spaces offset painted areas. After the color has been applied, the final step is to repaint or touch up the black outlines. The earliest paintings were done with earth pigments, whitewash and laundry bluing. Although commercial paints have replaced the older pigments, the artists still use chicken feathers as paintbrushes. Ndebele painters distinguish styles and origins among different forms of mural decoration.

Ndzundza (Southern) Ndebele art also tends to be open, less busy and more geometrically disciplined than that done by the Ndebele elsewhere.

Nyathela touching up a black outline with a chicken feather brush

Like the Ndebele culture itself, the style of wallpainting is in a constant state of becoming: assimilating and appropriating from the long-held spiritual beliefs of the Ndebele people as well as influences from the more and more culturally dominant and technology driven West. Through their bold, geometric designs, the women artists of the Ndebele affirm the identity of the group, and proclaim their uniqueness to all who see their art.

Ndebele: A People and Their Art. Ivor Powell. NY: Cross River Press, 1995.
The Ndebele: Art and Culture. Aubrey Elliot. Cape Town: Struik Publishers, 1993.


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There is no conclusive theory regarding the introduction of beads into Ndebele culture. It is thought that they have long been used by the Ndebele people and that the early glass beads, mostly of Czechoslovakian origin, may have been introduced during the second half of the nineteenth century by European traders. Beadwork has always been done exclusively by the Ndebele women, who are renowned for their artistic skills. Their beadwork and bead pattern-inspired mural paintings in particular have become an integral part of Ndebele culture.

The motifs used in beadwork and in wall painting show great vitality and dynamic response to the changing world around the artists. Commonplace items such as letters of the alphabet, especially from car registrations like TP for Pretoria, and N for Ndebele and Ndzundza, are used in their normal form or are elaborated for their design effect. Telephone poles, airplanes and the symmetrical geometric patterns of razor blades are also included. Stylized plant forms may express a hope for good harvests in a dry region. However the most frequent theme, as in wallpainting, is the house. Gables, gateways, steps, rooflines and light fixtures may all be recognized on women's aprons and on walls. These reflect the domestic interests of women, and may point to aspirations of idealized homes.

sample of Ndebele beadwork The types of beads used have changed over the years, and in more recent times the prohibitive price of the small, imported glass beads has led to the use of larger and cheaper plastic beads for more common items. Women who wish to make more fashionable items often recycle beads from older pieces of work. However, many of the old customs and uses for beads persist as women still painstakingly thread beads to make items such as the nyoka (literally 'snake'), which is a woven, beaded train worn by a bride during her wedding ceremony. Another trademark item is the unusual linga koba, or long tears, consisting of two narrow strips of woven beading that are worn hanging down on each side of the head. Mothers wear the linga kobe at the ceremonies marking the end of their sons initiation ceremonies. The pair of narrow beadwork bands attached to a headband reaching onto the ground represents the tears of sorrow and joy a mother has as she initiates her son into manhood.
In beadwork women have a personal expressive form. Beads are used Nyoka to decorate, or even to form, clothing. Men, who work on farms and in cities, generally wear beaded clothing and ornaments only at occasions such as initiation ceremonies. Women are also increasingly employed away from home and wear their beadwork less commonly. But wherever beadwork may be worn, it has been made by women who use this medium to make known their personal and family status, transitions in their lives, and to demonstrate their own creativity.
Clothing and their usage are described in the past tense, because traditional use is described here. These are now worn to a greater or lesser extent depending on individual preference and circumstances.
isiphephetu beaded apron Very young girls wore an igabe, a small apron with white beaded dressed skin or cotton fringes attached to a front waistband, densely covered with beadwork. After puberty and the accompanying initiation ritual, a young woman wore an isiphephetu, a stiff front apron decorated with beadwork, and she could then wear the isithimba, a long soft skin back apron, which was worn by women of all ages from puberty to old age.
Mdebele bride For her marriage, a bride wore an itshogolo, a goatskin front apron, with the lower edge cut into five approximately hand-length flaps. This was worn undecorated for her wedding, but as a married woman grew in status at her husband's home, she embellished her itshogolo with beadwork. She wore it at important ceremonial occasions, such as the initiation of her sons. Married women wore another type of front apron, an amaphotho. It was shaped rather like the itshogolo but had a central beaded fringe with two squared-off flaps at either side.
An important item worn by brides was a naga, a paneled skin cloak. At her marriage, a woman also receives a plain canvas apron from the family of her groom. The apron consists of a rectangle with five panels, which are referred to as "calves" and allude to the woman's ability to bear children. After her marriage, the woman embroiders the apron with seed beads in a simple design for everyday use or in more elaborate patterns for ceremonial use. She sews imported European glass beads onto the canvas backing and arranges them in bold geometric designs that echo the shape of Ndebele houses. In the apron, blue, green, and pink beads contrast with the white beaded background. This was often decorated with mainly white beads. A married woman's nguba is judged by the detail and intricacy of the beadwork that is used to decorate it, and is worn to all important ceremonies for her married life.
Old Mapoto bead design
Old Mapoto

New Mapoto bead design
New Mapoto
Older beadwork pieces, from the 1920s and 1930s, show the predominant use of white beads as a field color, and have symbols in mainly primary colors, green and orange. It appears that in time the designs were elaborated upon and enlarged, leaving less of the white field. Within approximately the last two decades, possibly influenced by wallpainting styles, the design has tended to occupy the entire piece. Along with this change has been a change color preference. Especially among the Ndzundza, the colors currently popular are dark blues, greens, purples and black, with touches of white. Little research has focused specifically on the selection of motif and color by the beadworkers. The change outlined above may simply indicate the sweep of fashion and availability of beads, or it may relate to regional and clan differences. It is possible that the significance of motif and color is different in particular contexts. In some situations they may refer to a group identity; in others as markers of status within a group; or as personal communication codes, for example between courting couples.

Through their artwork, the Ndebele maintained a strong group consciousness, and beadwork became one way in which they asserted their identity. They painted their homes with distinct patterns and wore beaded clothing and ornaments as part of everyday dress. Thus, the Ndebele proclaimed their cultural identity no matter where they were.
Ndebele: A People and Their Art. Ivor Powell. NY: Cross River Press, 1995.
The Ndebele: Art and Culture. Aubrey Elliot. Cape Town: Struik Publishers, 1993.

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In order for the women to weave items such as the sleeping mats, they must first go into the fields to harvest a variety of indigenous grasses. The cutting of grasses can be done only at certain times of the year, usually during the drier months of the Highveld winter when the grass is considered to be 'ripe' or dry. The women may also harvest and use certain sedges for weaving, depending on the items they are planning to make.

Ndebele woman wearing isigolwani, seated on a mat
Ndebele woman wearing isigolwani, seated on a mat

Dried grass is also used as the basis for making the thick, beaded isigolwani or neck, arm and leg bracelets. Once the grass has been cut, the women wind it into a firm hoop that is bound with strong cotton. Strings of beads are threaded, one tiny bead at a time, and wound around the grass hoop, which is then placed in a large pot of boiling sugar water. This causes the band to harden and set from within. These heavy bands of grass and beads are later soaked in syrup and left in the sun to set for two days, during which time they are regularly turned to face the heat to ensure that the syrup penetrates deeply. The excess syrup is washed off and the isigolwani are ready to be worn.

The art of weaving is, to a large extent, a dying craft within the Ndebele community. Domestic articles, such as woven baskets and storage containers, are no longer used on a daily basis because the Ndebele tend to buy their food already packaged from the shops. However, there are a few items that are still in demand, such as the sleeping mats. They are not used so much for sleeping on, since many Ndebele families own beds, as for sitting on outdoors, or giving away as gifts. Weaving allows Ndebele women to express their creativity and colored cottons and beads are sometimes woven into the mats as decorative motifs.

Ndebele: A People and Their Art. Ivor Powell. NY: Cross River Press, 1995.
The Ndebele: Art and Culture. Aubrey Elliot. Cape Town: Struik Publishers, 1993.

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A Brief History Of The Ndebele

The roots of the Ndebele people are dug deep into the brown, often harsh soils of the rolling Highveld. Their history can be traced back for some four centuries, to the time when they were once part of the Nguni tribe that moved down from Central and West Africa some two millennia ago. The Southern Nguni, along with their cousins the Sotho-Tswana, gradually settled the southern African subcontinent. Intermarriage and assimilation resulted in the emergence of a range of different identities and groupings that today are recognized as the Zulu, Xhosa, Swazi and Ndebele tribes.

In the 16th century, the Ndebele split into Northern and Southern branches; the northern branch, which assimilated with the Sotho-Tswana, has all but disappeared today. In the early 1600s, King Msi and his followers left their cousins, who later became the mighty Zulu nation, to settle amongst the low hills around which present day Pretoria is built. After his death, his two sons Manala and Ndzundza fought over the chieftainship, and the Ndebele split into two main factions. Manala and his followers went northwards, towards present day Pietersburg and have been largely assimilated by the surrounding Pedi. Ndzundza and his followers, who today are known as the Southern Ndebele, went east and south and they have remained distinctly Ndebele and culturally independent of their neighbors.

In the 1840s, the Ndzundza migrated once again to find a fortress from which they could defend themselves. King Mabhogo led his people to an area now known as Mapoch's Caves, in the hill country east of Roosenekal. Mapoch's Caves are located at the top of a long, steep climb through dense growth and deep ravines. The network of caves beneath the earth made the place practically impenetrable against attack. However, the rich farmland of the area allowed the Ndebele to prosper and accept refugees of other tribes who had been displaced by the Difaqane (the scattering of the people by the Boer invaders).

In 1849 and 1863, the Ndebele successfully warded off attacks by the Zuid Afrikaanse Republiek (ZAR), or white Boer invaders and settlers. Unlike some of the other tribes in the region, the Ndebele refused to negotiate or be bribed by the Boers, as their King Mampuru was bitterly opposed to white settlement. In October 1882, the intractability of the Ndebele led to a proclamation of state, whereby Commandant General Piet Joubert was authorized to use whatever means necessary to take King Mampuru. One month later, a formal declaration of war against the Ndebele was issued.

For eight months the Ndebele held out in subterranean tunnels in their mountain stronghold at Mapoch's Caves. Every attack on them was easily repulsed, and the Ndebele repeatedly led Joubert's men into ambushes. Joubert eventually changed tactics and cut off supplies from the outside, destroyed the Ndebele crops and livestock, and starved the Ndebele out of their stronghold. When defeat came, retribution was swift and relentless. The cohesive and threatening tribal structure of the Ndzundza Ndebele was broken up and all of their tribal lands were confiscated and divided among the Boers. King Mampuru was hanged.

The people were forced to work on white-owned farms in forced labor for five years. The resulting system was in fact slavery, and the farmers had absolute power over their indentured laborers. Many Ndebele were prevented from leaving at the end of the five-year term, and even today, more than 100 years later, there are still laborers working on farms whose conditions have not changed since their ancestors were indentured in 1883. The Ndebele had no recourse in custom or law to the harsh rule of the Boers, and physical assault remained a commonplace of life. Those who were allowed to leave were left to fend for themselves where and when they could, and lived a nomadic life.

From the early to mid-20th century, the Ndebele were in the wilderness, figuratively and literally, and as a result, maintained a strong tribal identity in the face of the government forces that sought to destroy them. Their mural art and beadwork and their strict adherence to culturally based rules of personal adornment maintained their cultural unity and reinforced their distinctive Ndebele identity. Thus, Ndebele art has a cultural, indeed a political, significance that lies beyond its aesthetic appeal. Through the 1950s, the Ndebele Kings were not willing to negotiate with the dominating central white government and allow the Ndebele to be grouped with other tribes in a homeland, instated subjects to the Apartheid regime.

Pressure for tribal recognition and a separate homeland within the Ndebele gained momentum, and in 1968, King David relented and allowed himself to be recognized by the South African government as paramount chief. In 1974, the Ndebele homeland was established and resettlement was begun. More than 10, 000 Ndebele were forcibly removed from their homes near urban areas where they worked and were unceremoniously dumped in the homeland to satisfy the National Party government's desire for ethnic separation. The government's failure to create industry and jobs within the new homeland resulted in many people having to spend over 8 hours a day and half of their wages commuting to and from the city.

Another problem that arose in the new homeland was the result of the corrupt chief minister Skosana and his white, government appointed advisors. By 1981, Skosana and his unelected legislature owned 70 percent of all businesses. In 1985, State President P.W. Botha announced the incorporation of the Ndebele into the Lebowa homeland as a step towards "independence" of the Ndebele homeland. Violence and an outright civil war followed, with Skosana and his supporters on one side, and the people, led by the royal family, on the other. By August 1986, 160 people had lost their lives, 300 had been detained by the authorities, and hundreds had gone "missing". Schools had been raided and students savagely assaulted and tortured. The students retaliated by burning the Skosana clique's homes and businesses, and faced with such destruction, the legislative assembly backed down. In 1988, Ndebele women were granted the right to vote and elections were held for the first time. A landslide victory for the anti-independence party of Prince James Mahlangu resulted, and the homeland was reincorporated, reversing the history the National Party had sought to construct.

The Ndebele artists who came to Tacoma to create the wallpainting are from the Mpumalanga Province in the Northeastern part of the country (see maps at right).

  South Africa   Mpumalanga region

Sources: Ndebele: A People and Their Art. Ivor Powell. NY: Cross River Press, 1995. The Ndebele: Art and Culture. Aubrey Elliot. Cape Town: Struik Publishers, 1993.

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