South Africa’s Southern Ndebele people practice the art of Ndebele house painting. This is one of the most difficult types of African art to create, it often takes over a week to make the painting. The Ndebele people in South Africa have a tradition of painting their homes with strongly geometric patterns that have thick black lines and bold colours. The women of the Ndebele tribe paint their homes with chicken feathers and are known for their attention to detail, particularly in making straight lines. In addition to geometric patterns and bright colours, Ndebele house paintings are also known for their geometric designs. The patterned walls are a result of the wall colour being a dark grey. This was a style popular in the 19th century. Ndebele wall paintings are considered to be a rare and beautiful form of art.
Ndebele house paintings are made with clay and cow dung which is then applied like paint. The Ndebele people use this as an opportunity to express themselves through painting, where each house’s design has its meaning and story. It is believed that family members will be blessed by their ancestors after completing one of these paintings. This form of art originated in 1891 when King Malengi I brought his people westwards from Zululand into what would become known as Mpumalanga Province, South Africa.
There are different styles and methods of Ndebele house painting:
Bathonga: The Bathonga style is the best–known and basic type. This painting is painted entirely in red, white and black colours. The base coat of these paintings is a solid black (made from mixing wood ashes with cow dung). Then the inside of the house (the ceiling) is painted white. Finally individual details like animals, people and flowers are added to give expression to the meaning of that specific house’s design. These paintings come in various sizes; sometimes they are as small as 3 feet by 3 feet, but sometimes they can be much larger than this and cover an entire wall.
Tarai: This style of Ndebele house painting is made in different sizes, with the largest paintings sometimes up to 4 ft wide by 6 ft long. The outside of the house is painted in white mixed into yellow. The inside of the house is painted entirely in shades of yellow. Small details are then added to this layer, such as animals, people and flowers which are given expression through different shades of red paint. This type uses an extra layer of material to reinforce the design on all four walls, giving it a smooth finish instead of the patchy surface characteristic of many other types.
Shanga: The Shanga style is a simple and decorative art form that uses a combination of chalk and chalk dust in different shades of blue and yellow. The outside is entirely painted in these two colours, which are mixed with different shades of blue to give the rabbits and other small characters on the wall design. As this is an entirely decorative painting, it doesn’t have any significance except as decoration for the house.
Metshi: This style uses a mixture of mud and cow dung, shaped into balls and then covered with clay, mixed with colours to make layers.
Artists within the oppressed groups developed expressive symbols based on each of these white-on-black repressive cases. These examples of creativity (images, forms, songs, etc.) could be read by the oppressed group as message signs.
Loubser (1994) confirms that “due to the difficult circumstances of the Ndzundza, the paintings were sometimes described as messages for locals passing farm buildings distant from the road.” The earliest carvings on the walls depict tonal patterns painted by the women onto the mud/dung walls of their round, cone-on-cylinder houses with their fingers. The earliest wall art references centuries-old Ndebele beadwork patterns and forms.
In constructing the first wall, monochrome ochres, browns, and black, along with limestone whitewash, were the initial hues. The elements of size, direction, and line pattern played a greater role in creating visually pleasing walls than polychrome.
While Ndebele wall designs are increasingly influenced by outside influences, in the remote Nebo area of the Northern Province one can still see the traditional black soot lines, whitewashed limestone and red and dark red-brown colours which have been replaced by sky blue, occasionally there may be a hint of pink among the colours. Deep blue, yellow-gold, green.
As evidenced by their art, Ndebele women have been exposed to and explored other cultures. In South Africa, some of the traditional cultural practices have been abandoned, but others have persisted and blended with modern elements to present an interesting juxtaposition of old and new.
Whenever powerful new external stimuli appear, Ndebele wall paintings respond expressively.
The following are:
- Electricity introduces the capability of viewing outside objects and the outside world;
- Economic realities restrict time for creation, as workers migrate daily into the city for employment;
- A change from painting houses to painting portable masonite panels has been influenced by tourists and the local market;
- Artists’ travels abroad and domestically;
- The current South African flag and colours of the ANC are seen in beadwork and on walls because of national consciousness;
- The patronage of multinational companies.
For centuries, Ndebele women, by tradition, have been given the right and responsibility to represent society through their art forms. Traditional Ndebele perceptivity to form and colour, and preferences for geometric harmony (Schneider, 1985) have survived the morning stages of modernization, due in part to their periodic inauguration process, performing the ritual with the womanish adolescents of older Ndebele women. Inauguration provides the vehicle for passing on the traditional chops, practices and stations necessary to be a good Ndebele woman. For youthful Ndebele women– whose exposure to the western world, its images, cultures, and value systems exceeds that of their parents– being honoured as Ndebele contributes to a secure sense of tone. The art of the Ndebele is at the core of this inauguration ritual, which restores balance to the life equation in these South African businesses.
Elephant, December 3, 2020, https://elephant.art/reinventing-resistance-the-ndebele-tribes-geometric-wall-art/
Hoard Adrienne, December 2000, Culture & Survival, https://www.culturalsurvival.org/publications/cultural-survival-quarterly/commodification-art-ndebele-women-stream-change
Image 1: Ndebele House Painting, Zoller Zen, Blendspace, https://www.blendspace.com/lessons/p7axtAhbXgKePw/ndebele-house-painting
Image 2: The Ndebele Village, Claude Voyage, April 29, 2011, Flickr, https://www.flickr.com/photos/claudevoyage/8951891498
Image 3: Women at the Ndebele Cultural Village, Loopspruit, Gauteng, South Africa. The photograph was taken in 1999, Loopspruit.https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ndebele_house_painting#/media/File:Ndebele-women-loopspruit.jpg