SA’s Ndebele paintings: A traditional metric in determining whether a woman would be a good wife and mother

Stephen Nartey September 07, 2022
Women at the Ndebele Cultural Village, Loopspruit, Gauteng, South Africa. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The Ndebele people of South Africa gained international recognition in the 1950s for their artistic mural paintings of their buildings. It’s the traditional duty of women in Ndebele to bring their creativity to bear using acrylic paints on the interior and exterior courtyards of their household. 

In the past, women created these bright colors by using clay, plant pulp, ash and cow dung. Modern influences have however phased out this outmoded method of manufacturing colors. 

Oral tradition has it that a woman’s ability to use decorative art to make a building stand out is one of the metrics in the Ndebele culture to tell whether a woman will become a good wife and mother. The women are expected to whitewash the outside gates, front walls, side walls and the interior of the house. 

A researcher with the University of Pretoria, Vali Lalioti, in her paper on Ndebele paintings, shared insights on the origins of the people and how the mural paintings have become a part of their culture. Ndebele is made up of four tribes, of which two major ones, Manala and the Ndzundza, are in South Africa. 

The Ndzundza group are the ones noted for their artistic works in painting and bead making. It’s one of the traits that make them distinct from the other ethnic groupings. 

Literature cited by Lalioti said the Ndebele originated as a tribe after one general under the Zulu King Shaka, Mzili Kazi, fled in 1823 with his clansmen to form their own settlement. Ndebele means those who carry long shields into what is now known as the Mpumalanga and Gauteng area. 

The Ndebele warriors after they suffered a heavy defeat at the hands of British soldiers in 1896, abandoned the thirst for wars and turned their attention to cattle rearing and farming. Some scholars indicated that the Ndebele wall paintings became a cultural expression of how the warriors felt after they suffered defeat from the British. 

The defeat of the war brought a lot of misery and harsh economic conditions to the people of Ndebele. In a way to express the grief the warriors felt, the women started painting to convey and institutionalize the grief in their symbols.

In the mid-18th century, many mud houses in the Ndebele had one symbol or the other painted on them. The paintings became a form of communication among the tribesmen. The larger theme behind the paintings however was an attempt to preserve their culture and tell the future generation of their heroic exploits during the war.

The women carried the secret code of the Ndebele tribe and shared their prayers, values, emotions and customs through the paintings.

One significant characteristic, according to scholars, is that the women of Ndebele never painted sacred messages of religion or rituals in their decorative art. This tradition of painting has been passed on from generation to generation, especially among elderly women to their daughters.

In ancient times, the symbols and styles of the paintings were informed by the beadwork of the tribe, but, modernity has reshaped the patterns that are often painted on buildings today.

Last Edited by:Mildred Europa Taylor Updated: September 7, 2022


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