The art of the Ndebele people

Amahlé’s first collection is inspired by the art of the Ndebele people. But who are the Ndebele ? We woud like to share with you a few words about the women of this tribe, who live between South Africa and Zimbabwe, and who are famous all over the world for their gorgeous paintings.

The art of the Ndebele women

The art of the Ndebele people is mainly seen on house paintings and beaded pieces. These artworks are exclusively made by the women, who inherit their knowledge and style from their mother and grandmother.

The Ndebele women are particularly creative during the Wela, the ceremony that celebrate the male initiation. For this occasion, the women repaint the walls of their homes.

The art of beading

Beading is the favorite hobby of the Ndebele women. The gather under the trees once they have finished their daily tasks to make gorgeous adornments that they will wear during the ceremonies.

IMG_9162-2 parure

The Ndebele women wear their beaded jewelry for the important celebrations. They only change them with the evolution of their social status, for example when they get married.

The Ndebele children wear beads before any piece of clothing. When they are born, they receive a single string of white beads for the good luck. When they grow older, they are given necklaces and bracelets for their wrists and ankles.

Photographies © Constance Stuart Larrabee
Photographies © Constance Stuart Larrabee

House paintings

IMG_4014When the summer rains have ceased and the sorghum and corn are harvested, the Ndebele women start the work of house painting. Their artwork reveal their feelings, emotions and their intimate relationships with their home, the indlu.

In the past, the women would only use the colors they could get from natural pigments. They used reds, blacks, browns, ochers made out of clay or coal… but also blue from imported washing powder ! Nowadays, the Ndebele find many bright colors in the shops, that they mix with clay to create pastel shades.

The way the Ndebele women paint is striking : they only do freehand drawing, painting directly on the walls. They do not need any preliminary sketch or tool to realize their geometrical colored shapes.

In many cases, the artists combine traditional patterns and figurative objects to create a unique style that mixes elements from the past and the present. Most of the women draw their inspiration from everyday items such as light bulbs, street lights, telephone poles, planes… these objects appear in the paintings, transfigured by the imagination and inventiveness of the artists.

Le motif le plus répandu et le plus controversé est la « lame de rasoir » : ce motif revient fréquemment dans les tissages de perles et les décorations murales. Pour certaines femmes il s’agit d’une lame de rasoir, et pour d’autres il ne signifie rien du tout !
One of the most common pattern is the “lazor blade”, that can often be seen in the house paintings or in the beadwork. It is also the most controversial: while some women intend to represent a razor blade, for others it is just an abstract shape with no meaning at all.

Esther Mahlangu

Photographie © Travys Owen
Esther Mahlangu © Travys Owen

The most famous Ndebele women is Esther Mahlangu. Her pieces of art have travelled worldwide, from the Pompidou Museum in Paris in 1989 to Washington, but also to Germany, Australia, Germany, and many other countries.

Esther Mahlangu learnt the art of house painting with her grandmother when she was 10. She is now 81 years old and she continues to paint. She is also running a school that teaches to young women the arts of house painting and beading.

Among her most famous artworks is the “art cart” made for BMW and place for the British Airways in 1997. The BMW group has made a beautiful short video about Esther Mahlangu and her art, that you can watch below:

Images © Groupe BWW
Images © Groupe BWW

If you want to know more about the Ndebele people, you can read the very good books Ndebele by Margaret Courtney-Clarke or Ndebele by Sergio Carminata.