'Art woman'

Esther Mahlangu, wearing traditional Ndebele beaded pieces, has traveled extensively to show her work. (Gayle Keck)

The battered sign beside the road proclaimed, "Esther is here. The 1st woman who visited oversea. Art Woman."

We turned and jounced down a dirt road to find "Art Woman," Esther Mahlangu, barefoot and lying on her stomach outside her thatch-roofed house. Nearly every inch of it was splashed with vivid geometric designs in pink, purple, blue, black and green. She was painstakingly applying tiny decorative glass beads to a pair of tennis shoes.

Mahlangu wasn't kidding on her sign. She has traveled to Japan, France and the U.S. to paint wall-size installations. She has created a custom-paint job for a BMW art car (joining the likes of David Hockney, Roy Lichtenstein and Alexander Calder). And her work has been exhibited from Italy to Australia, in such prestigious venues as Paris' Pompidou Centre and Germany's documenta IX exhibit. But that afternoon in her home, Mahlangu was content to chat with us about her art and her travels as a living icon of South Africa's Ndebele (pronounced "N-day-BAY-lay") culture.

My husband, Paul, and I came here in January 2004 for a two-day trip to the Ndebele's cultural heartland — formerly known as KwaNdebele — a flat, bleak landscape northeast of Johannesburg. With us were small-tour operator Titus Ncongwane and Khobongo "Petrus" Mahlangu, an Ndebele guide overflowing with fascinating facts and lore.

On the 100-mile drive from the Johannesburg airport, Petrus gave us a crash course on the 2.3 million Ndebele people, about 3% of South Africa's population. Ndebele warriors, originally part of the Zulu, fought off the Boers, Dutch-descended South Africans, twice in the mid-1800s, but were finally defeated in 1883. Their 140 square miles of land were confiscated, and they faced brutal subjugation as indentured servants to Boer farmers.

Their tribal homeland, KwaNdebele, was created in 1979, during apartheid, when the white South African government forced blacks onto "homelands" under a policy that confined 87% of the country's population onto 13% of its land. The 97-square-mile Ndebele homeland was set up in the Transvaal, in what is now known as Mpumalanga province.

We were here to see Ndebele art in its purest form — on traditional buildings — and to meet two of the female artists, Mahlangu and Francina Ndimande, who have helped introduce this fast-evolving art form to the world.

Before we met them, Petrus wanted us to gain some historical context at Kgodwane Cultural Village, near Loopspruit, created to show the evolution of Ndebele housing from plain, beehive-shaped grass huts to round mud homes painted in natural browns and ochre, and finally, to rectangular houses in the present-day bright colors and hard-edged geometric patterns covering interiors, exteriors and surrounding corrals, or kraals.

The origins of Ndebele wall painting are murky, though traditionally it has been a woman's art form. The first known photographs of houses painted with geometric designs were taken in the late 1940s. However, there's evidence of earlier, simpler artwork, such as borders painted around doors and windows with earth pigments or charcoal.

Traditional finger painting with diluted cow dung — a natural bug repellent, Petrus said — is thought to go back to the mid-19th century, when Ndebele housing transitioned from grass huts to mud-brick buildings. Wavy designs known as "tire tracks" are still sometimes applied to walls and also appear on floors. Although the more recent geometric designs are purely decorative, some Ndebele believe these older dung markings protect the house not only from bugs but also from evil spirits.

It wasn't until the 1950s that Ndebele wall painting took on more complex patterns, inspired by geometric shapes borrowed from traditional beadwork and the availability of commercial paints in a variety of colors. Abstract "ax head," "razor blade" and step designs appeared, along with stylized representations of Ndebele buildings.

When women began traveling to cities to work as domestic servants, multistory structures, clocks and European-style houses began to appear on murals. In some paintings, an airplane, referred to as "Ufly," streaks across a wall.

Modern construction and corrugated metal roofs have replaced many of the traditional painted thatch-roofed homes. But growing interest among tourists, museums and art collectors has helped keep the art forms practiced by many Ndebele women alive, as has the international recognition of Ndimande and Mahlangu.


Beaded adornments

In front of her home in the village of Mabhoko, Mahlangu stood up to greet us, revealing a striking tribal outfit. A beaded "apron" with deep scallops reached from her waist to below her knees. She was adorned with wide, beaded arm and leg bracelets in shades of blue and pink. Beaded necklaces were piled around her throat. Two more beadwork "bracelets" encircled her waist, like decorative life preservers.

A blanket with blocks of red, blue, brown, green and goldenrod was draped over her shoulders. Circling her neck, wrists and ankles were idzila, permanent decorative metal bands. When worn on arms and legs, idzila act as wedding rings; on the neck, they are gifts from a woman's family. These days, few young Ndebele women wear traditional idzila, choosing temporary plastic ones on ceremonial occasions.

Speaking in Ndebele, which Petrus translated, Mahlangu invited us into her home. The inside was as colorful as its exterior, with bright geometric designs edged in black exploding over every wall. The main motifs were triangles, diamonds, chevrons, zigzags and the stylized "razor blade" design she favors.

Mahlangu, in her 60s, creates her work on the spot, working with a simple brush fashioned from chicken feathers. "She looks at the wall and the idea comes," Petrus told us.