23 July 2001 by Andries Loots

" My mother and grandmother taught me to paint when I was ten years old. I have been busy with it ever since and have always liked it. When I am painting my heart is very wide,  it reaches out. It makes me feel very,  very happy "

Ester Mahlangu

These days we are more and more made aware of the amazing vibrant and colourful art of the Ndebele in Galleries around the world. Esther Mahlangu,  the best known,  was the first person to transfer the traditional mural art to canvas. She utilizes feathers, twigs and bundled-twigs as brushes in the traditional way of her people. She has already painted a BMW in Germany and the tailfins of the British Airways Boeings.

Painting by Ester Painting by Ester

When one regards the national flag of South Africa one can not but wonder where the idea or the design originated. One doesn't have to look  too far,  in fact 150 km north of Johannesburg in the province of Maphumalanga, lies the former Kwa-Ndebele homeland  were these colourful designs originate. 

The Ndebele tribe who was formidable warriors was a breakaway group from the Nguni tribe who moved down from the east coast of Africa. The Kwa-Ndebele homeland was formed by the former apartheids Government to resettle blacks in their own areas. The area was harsh and far from civilization. Many of the people became migrant workers and had to work in Johannesburg and Pretoria.

 In the beginning the Ndebele painted with cow dung and this changed as clays of different colours were added to produce  black,  red,  white,  green and yellow. The house was traditionally built with mud bricks and sealed or plastered with mud. Feathers or bundled-twigs were used as brushes to apply the mixture of clay and dung onto the prepared surface. In the 1940's the new generation, of which Ester was one,  moved onto modern paints to create brighter colours. 

Before the public was exposed to the Ndebele,  their art  was thought to only consist of the colourful beadwork that was sold in front of the National Zoo in Pretoria and passersby stood in amazement to look at the women with their colourful blankets and copper rings around their necks and legs.

Their art is not unique in style but rather a combination of elements from the various tribes like the Zulu, Pedi, Tswana and Sotho,  with which they came into contact. It is their custom to paint to announce a special occasion or event. Painting is therefore seen as a way of announcing a wedding or a funeral.  The vibrant and colourful geometrical shapes as we known them today only came into existence during the 1940's.

There are already a few of the women who gained international recognition as artists. Ester Mahlangu, Isa Kabini,  Francine Ndimande are well known. Their designs are evolving and changing as new ideas are incorporated with the younger generation bringing back new ideas to the traditional Villages. 

Anima Tribale,  Corpo Metropolitano,  Tribal Soul,  Metropolitan Body,  Contemporary African Art,  Galleria Spazia,  Bologna,  2001

<< REWIND >>FAST FORWARD.ZA,  New works from South Africa,  Van Reekum Museum Apeldoorn(NL ),  1999

South African Music Village, London Berlin Durban,  p.18-19,  1996

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