Why you should care
Because wall painting is a dying art.
You’ve probably received postcards from South Africa of brightly painted Ndebele homes, or you may have seen the panels painted by world-famous Ndebele artist Esther Mahlangu for the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond. The appeal of the Ndebeles’ sophisticated art and design is obvious — but scratch the surface, and you’ll discover that it’s also imbued with the strength and creative resilience of Ndebele women in the face of extreme hardship and injustice.
The Ndebele have long been an oppressed minority, but that has never stopped Ndebele women from sustaining their cultural identity through the powerful visual language of their beaded body adornments and distinctive homestead murals. “Wall painting flourished because it helped a woman proclaim who she was,” says Helene Smuts, founder of nonprofit the Africa Meets Africa Project and publisher and co-author of Africa Meets Africa: Ndebele Women Designing Identity.
It is a visual language … so sophisticated that it can be used to teach geometry.
Helene Smuts, founder, the Africa Meets Africa Project
The Southern Ndebele broke away from the Hlubi people of KwaZulu-Natal in the 1600s and fled to the interior of what is now South Africa. The Nzunza and Manala Ndebele clans who are the focus of this article were introduced to wall painting when they arrived in the area near today’s Pretoria and lived among the Sepedi people. “Wall painting is not unique to the Ndebele,” says Smuts. “But one could argue that over the past two centuries, they have become the masters of the art.”
Ndebele wall painting flourished after 1883, when the army of President Paul Kruger’s Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek defeated the Nzunza Ndebele clan, seized their ancestral lands as farmland and placed Nzunza families on Boer farms to work as indentured labor for a minimum of five years. Ndebele families, who until then had lived in villages, were now isolated from one another and forced to confront a fundamental question: How do we keep our traditions alive when we’ve been plucked from our ancestral land and village life?
Inspired no doubt by the sophisticated design of their beaded aprons, the Ndebele women developed an architectural style that made the individual family home a “village.” Over time, as they were provided with rectangular Western beds and tables by their Boer employers, the Nzunza Ndebele abandoned constructing circular huts in favor of rectangular houses with thatched roofs. The communal village of round grass huts was replaced with a single family’s homestead, which was made up of a complex of square houses, each allocated (in terms of seniority) to the wives within a polygamous marriage and the offspring of those wives.
There is continuity between the spatial arrangement of the homesteads and the geometric designs of the murals. In the early days of the new order only earthy pigments were used, along with textured, rhythmic patterns that the women created by running their fingers through the wet clay. In the 1940s, the Ndebele added a new color to their palette from an unlikely source — Reckitt’s Blue laundry detergent, which gave splashes of glorious ultramarine to their walls. Later, when oxides became readily available, the women painted with reds, greens and yellows. Traditionally, murals were redone every year as the summer rains washed away the pigments, but the arrival of latex paints in the 1970s meant colors remained vivid for much longer.
There is no direct symbolism in the painting, says Smuts. “But it is a visual language which is so sophisticated that it can be used to teach geometry.” The women took inspiration from what they saw around them: Razor blades, shopkeepers’ scales, gabled houses, telephone poles and even car registration plates have featured in their artwork over the years. Oddly, animals are largely absent. The murals, which can be 40 feet long, are all painted freehand, without any set squares or rulers.
Ndebele art was brought to the world’s attention in the 1940s through the work of photographers like Constance Stuart Larrabee. Ironically, the apartheid government actively encouraged the painting and even went so far as to create cultural villages, which served as an advertisement for so-called tribal purity. In the end, economics has done what politics could not: As more and more Ndebele have been forced to work in cities, their culture and traditions have been gradually diluted.
One woman is doing everything she can to reverse the slide. In 1989, when Esther Mahlangu was working at the Botshabelo Cultural Village about 80 miles east of Pretoria, she was scouted to attend the Magiciens de la Terre exhibition at the Pompidou Center in Paris. There, over the course of two months and with museumgoers watching, she painted an undecorated replica of her own home. “I do not paint with brushes; I only use chicken feathers, so I took my own chicken feathers with me,” Mahlangu said in an interview earlier this year.
Since then, Mahlangu — who cannot read or write and who only speaks Ndebele and Afrikaans — has become an international superstar, with her work adorning BMW automobiles, Belvedere vodka bottles and those panels in the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. Together with a few of her contemporaries, she has taught hundreds of girls and boys (yes, boys) to paint. These days very few Ndebele paint their own homes — the structures are mostly faced with brick — but the Ndebele have a strong core, and both male and female initiation practices are alive and well.
“Esther has exhibited all over the world,” says Smuts. “But her major concern is for the art to survive.”