Ndebele Murals - "When I Am Painting, My Heart Is Very Wide. It Reaches Out"

Savannah SjostromComment

I’ve been enamored with the art and dress of the Ndebele people for some time now. I can’t remember where I first saw images of the vibrantly painted facades of Ndebele homes, but it was definitely love at first sight. What immediately struck me about the murals was their bold, graphic patterns and vivid colors. Scarlet red, cobalt blue, turquoise, rose pink and saffron yellow are used to create abstract and geometric motifs banded in bold black lines. Infinite combinations of colors and forms are painted by each artist, resulting in brilliant, beautiful reflections of those who live within their walls.



In Ndebele society, mural painting and beadwork are the domains of women. Mothers teach their daughters both of these arts and so the practices are passed down generation after generation. Every four years, between April and June, for a period that begins and ends with a full moon, the young men of an Ndebele community are initiated into manhood during a ceremony called “Wela.” In the months immediately following this time, after the men return, the young women in the community are sequestered to their home, where they are taught “the secrets of womanhood and the fine points of painting and beadwork.” It is unknown to Westerners what the relationship between the images found in murals and those found in beadwork is, but both practices are deeply personal and tied to ritual. The fact that these artistic practices are passed down from woman to woman is particularly resonant. These paintings are visual manifestations of the bond between mother and child, and also of oneself. It is quite beautiful that the way a woman paints her home is the way she distinguishes herself from others.  I love the idea of adornment and style (in this case of the home and the self) as a visual declaration of individual identity. In the case of the Ndebele people, this dedication to identity is all the more poignant given that under the oppressive apartheid rule in South Africa, they were displaced - forced to leave their native lands and moved to government organized "resettlement camps."


A number of necklaces in the latest collection are named “Esther” and “Mahlangu” - Esther Mahlangu is perhaps the best known Ndebele artist. She first gained international attention in 1989 at an art expo entitled “Magicians of the World.” I like the idea of artist as magician. It’s a concept I consider often - an artist does perform a sort of magic while creating a piece, conjuring an entirely new image or object from simple materials - a tube of paint, a slab of marble, an idea. Mahlangu, and the other Ndebele women who paint these murals, transform their homes into gorgeous, dreamlike compounds, each of which make a unique statement about those who live inside.


In 1991, Mahlangu was commissioned by BMW to paint a 525i as part of their Art Car series. The first woman and the first non-Western person to participate in this series, Esther designed and painted the car with traditional Ndebele motifs. It is awesomely beautiful - a perfect melding of tradition, modernity and individual style and innovation. I am deeply inspired by Mahlangu’s painting, as well as her dedication to her heritage and artistic expression.  You can feel her energy in her work - vibrant, bright and full of life.

 Esther Mahlangu's BMW Art Car. "When I am painting, my heart is very wide. It reaches out."    - Esther Mahlangu

Esther Mahlangu's BMW Art Car. "When I am painting, my heart is very wide. It reaches out."    - Esther Mahlangu