For over a hundred years, the Ndebele have decorated the outside of their homes with designs. Before the mid 19th century, the Ndebele lived in grass huts. During the years of the Difaqane (scattering of the people during the Boer wars), the Ndebele mixed with their Sotho and Pedi neighbours, which resulted in the Ndebele switching from grass to mud walls in their house construction. They also integrated their cultural traditions, adopting the originally Sotho practice of decorating their walls with finger painting.

One form of early design was made with earth pigments, ranging from bright yellow to brown. The pigments were ground up and mixed with liquid to form a “paint” that was used to decorate door and window frames, bordered with charcoal.

The second form of early designs were made by dragging the fingers through wet plaster, usually cow dung, to leave a variety of markings, from squiggles and zigzags to straight lines. In this form of painting, the entire wall was divided into sections, and each section was filled in with contrasting finger paint patterns. In the Ndebele belief system, it is only this older form of painting that has any spiritual significance, and is believed to be demanded by the ancestors to create cultural continuity. Some Ndebele claim that sickness and bad luck would come to those who did not recognize the ancestors. This form of decoration is still acknowledged by contemporary painters, who decorate the ground in front of a new wall painting with these older designs. In this way the artists acknowledge their ancestor’s ways, blending the old with the new.

Decorated Wall

Decorated Wall

The contemporary form of wall painting is a surprisingly recent phenomena, and is linked to the history of the people themselves. After the indenture of the Ndebele in 1888, many of the freed Ndebele migrated to Hartebeesfontein. In 1923, they became separated from their King, and again found themselves in exile from the symbols of their tribal identity.

Living among Afrikaner farmers and Sotho neighbours, the continued cultural identity of the Ndebele was threatened. Those in the north in time increasingly adopted the Sotho language and other cultural traits. The southern Ndebele, the Ndzundza and Manala, by contrast, kept their Nguni language, persisted in ceremonials such as First Fruits rites and initiation, and made their particular identity highly visible in their homes and dress. Under the most extreme conditions of marginalization, significant developments in Ndebele painting emerged and flourished.

It is women who have been the practitioners of the artistic forms that are such striking Ndebele cultural markers. In beadwork and wall painting, women have an outlet for the expression of their experience of the world, of their aspirations, and of their identity as individuals and as part of a group. The first paintings’ imagery came primarily from the women’s beadwork traditions that go back hundreds of years. The early paintings were geometric and primarily decorative. Over the decades, the painters’ style quickly developed and the artists began to incorporate imagery from their lives, particularly the details drawn from their work as domestic servants in white households in the cities. Electric lights, swimming pools, multistory houses, telephones, airplanes, and water taps all appear prominently in Ndebele paintings. Artists have been quoted as saying that because they want these things for themselves, they paint them on their homes. Read literally, the symbols and designs in Ndebele wall painting reflect the aspirations of the painter, and ultimately, the community.

Painted Buildings

To begin a wall painting, the artists divide the wall into sections and then snap chalk lines diagonally across each section. Next, the artists begin painting the black outline of the design for each section. Painting is done freehand, without a scale design layout done beforehand. Neither rulers nor squares are used, and yet symmetry, proportion and straight edges are exactly maintained.

Then, the black outline is filled in with colour, and white spaces offset painted areas. After the colour has been applied, the final step is to repaint or touch up the black outlines. The earliest paintings were done with earth pigments, whitewash and laundry bluing. Although commercial paints have replaced the older pigments, the artists still use chicken feathers as paintbrushes. Ndebele painters distinguish styles and origins among different forms of mural decoration.
Ndzundza (Southern) Ndebele art also tends to be open, less busy and more geometrically disciplined than that done by the Ndebele elsewhere.

Like the Ndebele culture itself, the style of wall painting is in a constant state of becoming: assimilating and appropriating from the long-held spiritual beliefs of the Ndebele people as well as influences from the more and more culturally dominant and technology driven West. Through their bold, geometric designs, the women artists of the Ndebele affirm the identity of the group, and proclaim their uniqueness to all who see their art.

However it is not just wall paintings that are associated as world renowned art by the Ndebele people. Their vibrant colourful expression of art has taken on many different forms over time, and been recognised by some modern organisations who have embraced the Ndebele art as a method of marketing their products throughout Africa. One brilliant example of this was the BMW Ndebele colour finish campaign that was launched in South Africa in the 1990’s.

Front End

Finished Product

It is not just painted art that has made the Ndebele people famous around the world. The Ndebele people have some of the finest artistic bead work in the world, making some of the most sort after jewellery in the world. Using wonderful colours, vibrant patterns and some of the most amazing breeds you might find their creations are prized possessions to many of the rich and famous celebrities of the world.

Beaded Bangle


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