The Ndebele people have faced extreme adversity over the last few centuries which led to the nation splintering into three distinct groups over three different geographical areas; however, Ndebele culture and traditions stood the test of time despite being a cry in the dark during tribal conflicts and the Apartheid years.
The Ndebele visual arts became bolder pronouncing strong defiance to the continued onslaught of their identity as a nation.
The heart of this extraordinarily colorful nation lay beating in the hands of a ten-year-old girl named Esther Mahlangu.
“I have always had the calling to teach the science and significance of Ndebele painting, and why we paint. In my school, not only will I be teaching them the Ndebele art form but also the language and cultural aspects, along with the origins of the Ndebele people. You cannot separate the art from the language, culture, and the people, because this is where it comes from.”
The migration of the Nguni people from East Africa to the south in the 11th century resulted in breakaway groups that currently make up two-thirds of South Africa’s Bantu population.
Bantu people are the speakers of Bantu languages, comprising several hundred indigenous ethnic groups in Africa, spread over a vast area from Central Africa, to Southeast Africa, and Southern Africa.
The four groups are the
The Ndebele broke away from the Hlubi people of Kwa-zulu Natal in the 1600s and moved north to settle alongside the Sepedi people who introduced them to wall painting. During this time the Ndebele once again split up into three different groups:
The Southern Ndebele adopted home painting from the Sepediand transformed it into the colorful geometric murals you see today.
They also adorn themselves with beadwork and copper and brass neck, wrist, and ankle rings (idzila) that signify status and are reserved for married women only.
These rings can only be removed after the death of her spouse. Part of a married woman’s attire is a colorful thick striped wool blanket decorated with beadwork strips that are stitched onto it.
Interestingly, the Southern Ndebele speaks the purest form of isiNdebele(Southern Ndebele) and it is the only written form of the language. This is an important fact as it emphasizes the Ndebele people’s pride in their language and culture which defines them as a nation.
Southern Ndebele culture was under constant threat from the Zimbabwean Ndebele under Chief Mzilikazi who regularly invaded them to bolster his tribe numbers.
But the Southern Ndebele once again came under threat when the Boers invaded their territory in 1883 breaking up the tribe and imprisoning Chief Nyabela and other members of the royal family.
The Ndebele were forced to surrender as their crops were destroyed and cattle herds confiscated. The British used the same scorched earth tactics that starved the Boers into submission compelling them to surrender that ended the Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902.
The Ndebele became indentured farm laborers and domestic servants and were widely scattered over the southern region of the Boer Transvaal Republic, but they did not forsake their roots.
Their struggle to keep their culture and identity as a nation alive required every Ndebele person to live their culture and the womenfolk played a leading role through their cultural dress code, beadwork, and home painting.
During the later years of Apartheid, homelands were created for the different African tribes and KwaNdebele (KwaNdebele was a bantustan in South Africa, intended by the apartheid government as a semi-independent homeland for the Ndebele people.) was created for a portion of the Ndebele people as many had been forced to move to another homeland called Lebowa.
With creative expression embedded in Ndebele culture, art became a means of communication that served as a form of tribal identification amidst a scattered nation now living under oppressive minority.
Showcasing Ndebele heritage through cultural expression was seen by the Boers as simple home decorating and it was allowed, yet it was a peaceful resistance stance that went unnoticed.
Home painting and honoring their tribal dress code allows the Ndebele to openly put their identity on display for all to see.
Esther Mahlangu was born in 1935 and at the age of ten was allowed by her parents to paint designs on the back of her home.
Only once she has mastered the art of painting straight lines without any aids, was she allowed to paint the front and sides of their home.
She was an eager artist with a calling and she stepped up to plate, chicken feather in hand.
Home painting, both interior, and exterior is a task put aside for Ndebele women and their home is judged by the quality of their artwork. Straight lines and complimenting geometric shapes that depict life at the time are non-negotiable.
In the Ndebele culture, a well-painted home symbolizes that a good wife and mother is living in the home.
In traditional times only natural pigments that included black, limestone whitewash, and brown were used.
When acrylic pigments became available after the second world war Ndebele women seized the opportunity to add more color to their homes as it would deliver a much stronger message.
Red, yellow, blue, green, and pink framed in a standard black border against a white background forms the basic foundation for most Ndebele artistic expression.
Due to their history as a persecuted minority tribe and race during Apartheid, the Ndebele are reluctant to openly share the deeper symbolic meaning of their craft.
However, there are certain symbolic rituals like weddings, coming of age ceremonies, a first child, and other milestones in life that have been shared.
Bold colors incorporated into a geometrical design represent the status of the person within the community but it may also represent a current or unfolding protest.
The strong geometric shapes with some displayed in symmetry are characterized by straight lines and a black border.
Ndebele designs reflect timeless art that is deeply rooted in cultural history yet is always open to new creative input as long as the Ndebele culture is properly represented.
An example of this is the Bonolo Chepape Ndebele Earth rug which has a beautiful design that appears to be Ndebele inspired but the circles are out of place. Bonolo Chepape is from the Pedi tribe and her designs are a reflection of the Pedi culture.
Esther Mahlangu was a ten-year-old girl in 1945 and it was at this time that she waged her war to protect her heritage and carry her Ndebele culture forward.
She wasn’t fortunate enough to attend school but she did learn about her culture through verbal lessons from mother and grandmother who explained the importance of speaking through art.
She was taught through repetition and only straight lines were acceptable and worthy of praise.
Esther buried herself in Ndebele designs and perfected the art of house painting before she was “discovered” in 1989 and invited to participate in an exhibition in Paris, France, where she painted a replica of her home in front of an audience.
Esther was determined to bring global awareness to Ndebele art and she was the first woman to paint Ndebele home murals on canvas.
In 1991 Esther painted the BMW Art Car and went on to present her creations around the globe in leading art exhibitions.
Funds made from the sale of her art pieces went into her school and helps to educate young Ndebele children on their culture and creative expression through painting.
Esther is also involved with Thula Tula mill Aranda Textile mill who makes authentic African blankets and throws. Her involvement is to ensure that the Ndebele culture is correctly represented in the designs and use of colors.
At age 86 Esther remains a trailblazer and continues teaching at her school in the hope that her efforts will contribute to preserving the Ndebele culture but she is always willing to travel and meet with influential people who may help to keep the legacy of Ndebele art alive.
Genuine authentic Ndebele blankets and throws are manufactured by the Aranda mill and distributed through Thula Tula.
The range of Ndebele blankets and throws showcase a few of the dominant Ndebele designs with their creative use of color which is a true reflection of the Ndebele culture; after all, Esther oversees the Ndebele representation herself and she is viewed as the Ndebele cultural ambassador.
The blankets and throws are lightweight and very comfortable. They are hypoallergenic and machine washable so taking care of your Ndebele blanket or throw is made a lot easier.
The beauty about the designs is that they blend into almost any setting as the geometric shapes that make up the designs are universal.
The blanket or throw can be styled to have some colors dominate the setting and give you a sense of continuity. Alternatively, you can go as bold as the Ndebele have done for so long and display your blanket or throw in all its glory but then you must expect to pay it forward by teaching your visitors about how a minority tribe survived so much adversity to bring color into your life.
One of our missions here at Thula Tula is to help spread (and keep alive) the stories of this beautiful culture and it's art by welcoming this art into your home and understanding its true significance to the Ndebele People.
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