Art lovers will appreciate this Postmodern Ndebele exhibition.
“The stage is set to illustrate how ordinary, everyday people become sculptors, huts become palaces and beaded paintings become the expression of individuality,” said Sharon Crampton, the director of Phansi Museum.
Who remembers the famous SA entry for a BMW at world exhibition in Germany?
Esther Mahlangu’s designs for BMW and British Airways kept spreading the Ndebele culture around the world, and assisted them in gaining international recognition. On scrutinising this exhibition, it is evident that Ndebele is one of the best examples of art and architecture as one.
It is believed that “wall decorating” among the Ndebele people began with the construction of simple adobe huts but the wet plaster created opportunities to mould, incise and engrave the surfaces. The inspiration was there and so the decorating began.
Geometric patterns were filled in and reinforced with lines, speckles, different shades of earth and at times, pebbles. The outlines defined the geometry. Although much of this process was to beautify, it was also an annual ritual that dealt with maintenance issues and a background to ancient rituals and celebrations.
The painted murals were first recognised by outsiders in the 1940s and brought to the public’s attention in 1950, with the opening of a tourist village north of Pretoria, where the geometric, non-pictorial decorations begin to promote something entirely different.
To celebrate this progression or transition, the Ndebele people turned to art. But this time it was different, no longer the humble, modest art of their pre-war and dispersal traditions but the loud vigorous art of the advertisers, marketers and “fine artists” surrounding them. The murals which, in the past, were a salute to the ancestors and a celebration of the rites of passage - became billboards of aspirations and dreams, visualisations of the future and lights, wonderful houses and villages and distant communications through wire, travel and technology.
From the 1950s onwards, façade painting under the influence of the iconic Ndebele pattern artists became somewhat prescribed and artists now explored their newfound freedom of expression in their beadwork.
Architects, anthropologists and art lovers hankered after the origins of the patterns and the geometry of the Ndebele; all which transpired before the influence of Western culture, technology and materials. They searched for the original meanings and compositions of colours and shapes and, soon enough, the patterns and colours of the Ndebele crept on to public buildings floors, billboards and walls.
At the same time, art lovers and collectors started to collect “pure white Ndebele” and marvel at the art. Soon enough, strong black lines began to frame the patterns and images, and a transition is seen in the colour preferences of the artists and community, who eventually moved away from using colours from “the earth” to using bright colours they purchased from the winkel (shop). It is very reminiscent of what happened to world-famous Dutch artist Mondrian, whose red, yellow, blue colour with white square and black lines have stimulated fashion and art for decades - until today.
The façade making and painting of the Ndebele drew ever more tourists and certainly put the Ndebele on the map. Not only to every other member of this community but, more importantly, to thousands of tourists, architects, anthropologists, home decorators and others. Journals dug into the mysteries and began to look backwards, with fantastic illustrations.
Craft took a back-seat now, a simple lazy-stitch was quite enough, the then present colour pallet of beads prevailed - geometry was the rule. No life or people were depicted, this was a time of building dream homes or palaces and this became the subject matter.
With time, the buildings became flags, signals rather than aspirations.
Certain signs and symbols gave away clues, such as the famous razor blade used to illustrate the celebration of a young man returning from isolation. Rituals became art festivals and exhibitions and individuals, especially the girls about to become women turned themselves from modest body artists into fantastic sculptures, probably taking their cue from the Michelin Man staring down from the roofs of the great lorries, travelling between mines and the neighbourhood.
When one carefully scrutinises this exhibition, it is evident that the Ndebele are the most obvious example in the world of art and architecture.
The exhibition closes on Saturday, September 30.
* For more information contact the director, Sharon Crampton, at 031 206 2889 or [email protected]