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A BRUSH WITH TRADITION

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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.

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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.

A large room was devoted to displaying pieces for sale. Acrylic paintings on canvas hung from the roof beams or leaned against the walls. A table was covered with beadwork necklaces and bracelets; another held pots painted in the same color palate as her house.

Mahlangu was instrumental in taking Ndebele painting from mural form to new formats. Besides canvases and a BMW, she has painted on a television and a pair of high-heeled shoes, and once enveloped a semi-automatic weapon in beads. She often travels to paint wall installations at museums or attend exhibitions of her canvas works.

She flipped through a photo album of trips to places where she painted commissions for museums and private clients. Chuckling over a picture taken during a visit to Japan, Mahlangu said she had descended from the airplane barefooted, scandalizing the Japanese, who insisted it was too cold and rainy for her to go without shoes. She reluctantly donned the pair of tennis shoes her hosts procured but, she said, "I took them off whenever I could."

I pulled out a small photo album of our home and family that we carry on trips, and Mahlangu sized up our modest stucco house in San Francisco.

"I already have an idea!" she said.

"What would you charge?" I asked.

She pointed to a painted wall, about 18 by 8 feet, and said "10,000 rand," about $1,600.

"We'll start saving our money," I joked, imagining how extraordinary it would be to have Mahlangu arrive, barefoot, to transform our house's façade.

"Ohhhh-kay!" Mahlangu said, with a lilting laugh.

We bought one of Mahlangu's smaller paintings on composition board similar to Masonite, for $50. I also picked out a rope-like beaded necklace wrapped in the same black-edged pastel designs as Mahlangu's wall paintings for $20, and Paul fell for an $80 detailed Ndebele doll in full women's costume she had fashioned down to the beaded strings of "tears" that a mother wears once her son has gone through the grueling initiation into manhood.

At the 34 Long gallery in Cape Town, which represents Mahlangu, several of her acrylic works on canvas were priced at $1,700 to $3,200.

"Esther and her work are in huge demand internationally," said gallery spokesperson Andries Loots, adding, "She is more known outside South Africa than she is locally, where she is still seen by many as just a craftsperson."

We learned about another traditional Ndebele custom through a thoroughly modern device — Petrus' cellphone. He received a call confirming that a female initiation rite was taking place, and we were invited to participate. The kuthomba, a ceremony marking a girl's transition into womanhood, is held at her family's discretion when she's 16 to 18 years old. First, she is secreted away in the family home to learn such womanly skills as cooking and caring for the household. In times past, the crafts of beading, painting and mat weaving were taught, but this happens less often these days. About a month later, the girl emerges at an iqude, a party celebrating her coming of age and signifying that she's ready for marriage.

As we drove to the iqude in the village of Gemsbokspruit, Petrus explained that Ndebele men may have multiple wives, and wall painting can be a way that women set themselves apart.

"How many wives do you have?" I asked.

"Only one. She would never put up with another," Petrus replied.

When we arrived, the men were partying under a large tent, snacking on a cooked cow — the head, considered a delicacy, is the last to go — and eating tripe to help "their libido," Petrus said. Paul joined the rowdy males as they passed around calabash gourds filled with homebrewed beer.

I joined the women, following one into a small brick house. Inside a living room bare of furniture, 30-odd women sat against the walls on hand-woven grass mats. They were wearing modern skirts and dresses, but all had hats or head scarves and blankets around their shoulders.

The women spoke little English, and my three-phrase Ndebele vocabulary — "hello," "how are you," "doing well" — didn't carry me far. But technology did. My digital camera became the hit of the party, as I snapped photos and passed the camera around so everybody could look at the display screen. The women surely had seen photographs before, but the instant visual was something new, and elicited oohs and aaahs.

Eventually, they formed a procession, and swaying and chanting, they paraded outside. They passed by the men's tent, collected some of the men, and moved to the rear of the house, where rice, pumpkin, porridge and corn were bubbling in big iron kettles. Nearby was a spread of food, brought by guests for the girl's family. We had carried gift boxes of Jelly Belly candies from the U.S., because the compartments filled with bright colors reminded me of Ndebele paintings. We offered a box, and with a shrill blast on her whistle, a woman announced our present.

We never saw the girl who was being initiated, because she was still secreted away, and we had to leave before she made her appearance.

In the slanting light of late afternoon, we drove back to Mabhoko to visit Siyabuswa Roman Catholic Church, adorned with the work of Francina Ndimande, another internationally known artist, also in her 60s. Colors blazed across the church and surrounding fence, in the geometric patterns and repeating borders that are her trademark. Like Mahlangu, Ndimande paints from memory and imagination, never using a pattern.

Gazing at the church, I saw a similarity between Ndebele buildings and designs common in the Southwest U.S. It resembled a New Mexican pueblo that had collided with a rainbow.

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A tradition continues We spent the night at the Ndebele Foundation in Mabhoko, created to help nurture the next generation of Ndebele artists and support rural women. The compound held a beautifully painted guesthouse and art center.

The floor of our small double room was painted in swirls and zigzags with the traditional cow dung solution. The bedsheets, stool, mirrors and side tables were all painted in Ndebele patterns. There was no electricity — light was provided by candles and oil lamps — and toilets and showers were outside.

The next morning, we shopped among the students' work, finding beaded necklaces for $5 to $20 and bracelets that were $2 and up, then paid a visit to Ndimande, whose home was nearby. Ndimande welcomed us wearing a simple dress and blanket. She too wore the permanent idzila and sported chunky beaded ankle bracelets above her blue tennis shoes. Her house, a showcase for her painting, was covered in colors of almost neon intensity.

Ndimande's home was a pastiche of the traditional and modern. A television set was incongruously perched on a table in a corner of the large main room. Behind it, painted bars of blue, gold, green, black and red ran across the wall. Traditional seating mats rolled on poles hung from the thatch roof, yet lace curtains hung at the windows.

Ndimande is a princess — the Ndebele are ruled by a king — and, like Mahlangu, has often traveled outside the country. One of her more interesting commissions was painting a Scottish double-decker bus.

She also sells work from her home, though there were no paintings on canvas displayed when we visited. We purchased for $18 a pair of 8-inch-tall gourds covered in horizontally striped beadwork that bore a strong kinship to the designs of Ndimande's wall murals.

At Cape Town's 34 Long gallery, her acrylic works on canvas sell for $1,500 and $3,000; her works on paper are $800.

Mahlangu's and Ndimande's fame has helped re-focus attention on what was a dying art. Both women teach classes of youngsters. Ndimande's daughter, Joyce, is carrying on her mother's work, and Mahlangu told us with excitement, "I think I have found the next Esther!"

Subjugation and isolation have played a role in shaping Ndebele art, but despite that, the individualism of the Ndebele women shines through. You can appreciate it on a gallery wall or a mural, but nothing compares with sitting down for a chat in a mud-brick house that's been transformed into a palace — using just paint, chicken feathers and a brilliant imagination.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Ndebele treasures

GETTING THERE:

From LAX, Delta, American, Virgin Atlantic, British, Lufthansa, Air France and Swiss have connecting service (change of plane) to Johannesburg, South Africa. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $1,890 until May 31, rising to $2,268 until Aug. 16.

TELEPHONES:

To call the numbers below from the U.S., dial 011 (the international dialing code), 27 (country code for South Africa) and the local number.

TOURS:

Sizwene Tours, President Street, Cosmos Centre, Suite 20, P.O. Box 3481, 1035 Witbank, Mpumalanga, South Africa; 11-975-5239 or 13-690-3819, cell 82-331-8328, http://www.sizwene.com target="_blank"> http://www.sizwene.com ". The company's Titus Ncongwane arranged our two-day visit to the region. It included transportation, meals, guide and rustic lodging (no electricity, separate bath facilities) at the Ndebele Foundation. Tours start at $155 per person.

Dreamcatcher, 6 Hartford Grange, Bokmakierie Ave., Sonstraal, 7560 Durbanville, South Africa; 21-976-9372, http://www.dreamcatcher.co.za target="_blank"> http://www.dreamcatcher.co.za ", or in the U.S., Mary Braxton-Joseph, (919) 928-0044. We booked our Ndebele visit and additional travel in South Africa through a travel agency whose founder, Anthea Rossouw, specializes in cultural tourism. Ndebele tours are $175 per person, per day.

TO LEARN MORE:

South African Tourism, (800) 593-1318, http://www.southafrica.net target="_blank"> http://www.southafrica.net ".

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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