The Ndebeles are an African ethnic group living in South Africa and Zimbabwe known for their artistic talent, especially with regard to their painted houses and colorful beadwork. Not much is known about these people except that they originated from the larger Nguni tribes who make up almost two thirds of the black population in South Africa.
Ndebeles are thought to have travelled from Natal to the Transvaal region and settled near Pretoria in the 16th century. Rivalry between families caused one group of Ndebele to go farther north into Zimbabwe. Of the groups that stayed in South Africa, the Manala and the Ndzundza, it is the latter who developed abstract house-painting schemes and who are recognized globally as the Ndebele of South Africa.
The Ndebele are noted for their colourful dress and their artistic creativity, which includes sculpted figurines, pottery, beadwork, woven mate, and their celebrated wall painting.
Traditionally the wall paintings of the Ndebeles are always done by the women, she is responsible for the painting of the outside gates, front walls, side walls, and usually the interior of her home. This tradition and style is passed down in the families from generation to generation by the mothers. A well-painted home indicates the female of the household is a good wife and mother.
The initial wall art designs and symbolic forms were derived from centuries-old Ndebele beadwork forms and patterns. Earliest wall art shows tonal patterns painted by the women with their fingers on mud walls of their cylindrical houses.
The Ndebele wall designs have evolved over the years showing increasing external influence.
Ndebele homes are most eye-catching. Women, using bright primary colors, traditionally paint walls of the rectangular structures. No stencils are used for the geometric motifs.
Ndebele aesthetic expression in the form of mural art and beadwork has won international fame for that society during the latter half of the twentieth century. Mural painting (ukugwala) is done by women and their daughters and entails the multicolor application of acrylic paint on entire outer and inner courtyard and house walls.
Earlier paints were manufactured and mixed from natural material such as clay, plant pulp, ash, and cow dung. Since the 1950s, mural patterns have shown clear urban and Western influences. Consumer goods (e.g., razor blades), urban architecture (e.g., gables, lampposts), and symbols of modern transportation (e.g., airplanes, number plates) acted as inspiration for women artists.
Ndebele beadwork is essentially part of female ceremonial costume. Beads are sown on goat skins, canvas, and even hard board nowadays, and worn as aprons. Beaded necklaces and arm and neck rings form part of the outfit that is worn during rituals such as initiation and weddings.
As Ndebele beadwork became one of the most popular curio art commodities in the period from the mid-1960s to the mid-1990s, women also beaded glass bottles, gourds, and animal horns.
The recent prolific trading in Ndebele beadwork concentrates on “antique” garments as pieces of art. Some women are privately commissioned to apply their painting on canvas, shopping center walls, and even cars.
One of the best places to see this form of art is at Mapoch, about 40 km west outside Pretoria. Another Ndebele village well worth a visit is Mpumalanga, situated in eastern South Africa, north of KwaZulu-Natal and bordering Swaziland and Mozambique.