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A trip to South Africa and Ndebele Art

Now clearly I am not part of this tribe, however I was always fascinated by this art and loved seeing these tiny painted houses dotted around Mpumalanga when holidaying there. This year I was meant to visit my family in South Africa and because of coronavirus, I will not be seeing them unfortunately, so instead I have the chance to show you a little bit about this beautiful culture. 

I will also attempt my own Ndebele design and I encourage you to do the same once you have learned a bit about it and seen some of the incredibly colourful art.

Ndebele art is characterized by the colourful geometric patters and shapes painted on the outside of huts and houses. The art is always done by the women of the tribe and was done free hand, without using any rulers! (which I will attempt myself)

Ndebele woman painting her house

Originally they used natural colours from the earth like monochrome ochres, browns, blacks and limestone, but when the French introduced acrylic paint in South Africa in the 1940’s, the designs took on a whole new vibrancy of bright bold colours. 

Ndebele home and walls painted

I have read about a few different origins of this art. One being that the women of the tribe would paint their houses after the initial conflicts with the white man in South Africa to show other tribes people who lived in those houses, to say"We are Ndebele. Ndebele live here."The paintings became an expression of both cultural resistance and continuity. 

I have also read thatthe original patterns that were painted on the houses in the past were part of a ritual of Ndebele people to announce events like a birth, death, wedding, or when a boy goes off to the initiation school. 

Each woman had her own style and colouring to express her individuality and self-worth. 

Traditional Ndebele women in front of their home

Ndebele art has been made famous in South Africa and around the world by an incredible 80 + year old artist, Esther Mahlangu. She took the art off the walls of houses and onto canvas and other surfaces and have been exhibited around the world.

Back in 1991 just after Nelson Mandela was released from prison she did a famous collaboration with BMW by painting a BMW car with the Ndebele style. 

Esther Mahlangu’s BMW collaboration 1991

“When looking at a Ndebele mural, people get a smile of amazement on their faces,” she says. “And if they watch me paint, they can’t believe that I don’t use a ruler to paint the lines, and that my hand is so steady, even at my age. If people see the bright colors, they are happy. And it makes me happy as well, as I love to paint; it is in my heart and in my blood.” Esther Mahlangu.

Esther Mahlangu in front of her house in Mpumalanga

Esther Mahlangu, Abstract, 2014

Making my own Ndebele inspired art

Now I am going to have some fun and make my own Ndebele art using my Life of Colour Acrylic paint pens and NO RULER

Planned out my design with pencil on mixed media paper, and then went over it with my medium (3mm) black paint pen.

Tips: Start making a thick frame around your paper, then start dividing the space with horizontal lines. On each of these bands, draw triangles and vertical lines to divide different shapes. 

I chose a few basic colours from the Classics pack, the primary colours: blue, red and yellow, and two secondaries: orange and green.

This is so fun!

My finished Ndebele Art piece


I hope you all enjoyed that little trip to Mpumalanga South Africa, meeting Esther and her fellow Ndebele artists and learning a little bit about another culture.

Why don’t you give this a try on any surface, you could make amazing shoes, a gorgeous pot or a framed artwork for your wall. It is certainly a lot of fun and very therapeutic. 

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