Esther Mahlangu and the cultural symbolism of the Ndebele women artwork

Esther Mahlangu the inimitable South African icon never ceases to capture our hearts. Her art and paintings are stuff of legend. She has made headlines with her commissioned work for brands such as luxury vodka brand Belvedere to design a limited edition of its bottle in Ndebele art – 50% of the profits from this special bottle go to the Global Fund to fight HIV/Aids. She also collaborated with BMW to create a unique BMW 7 Series using Ndebele art. In 2016, the car was offered for silent auction at London’s Frieze Art Fair in September 2016. This is art-rageously empowering!

But there is so much more to the origins of her artwork, which calls for some food-for-thought.

According to South African History Online, because of the strong patriarchal attitudes and practices in Ndebele communities where men – “especially those of chiefly background – continue to practice polygamy, women must practice ukuhlonipha (respect) towards their husbands and parents-in-law in particular, but also towards men in general. [And] making and selling beadwork, mats, dolls and other crafts have thus provided some Ndebele women with an independent livelihood. These include internationally famous women like Esther Mahlangu.”

The website Siyabona Africa provides an even more indepth look look into what lies beneath the popular Ndebele women’s artwork which Mahlangu has catapulted onto the international stage: below is an excerpt from the website which you can visit here for more:

“Ndebele women traditionally adorned themselves with a variety of ornaments, each symbolising her status in society. After marriage, dresses became increasingly elaborate and spectacular. In earlier times, the Ndebele wife would wear copper and brass rings around her arms, legs and neck, symbolising her bond and faithfulness to her husband, once her home was built. She would only remove the rings after his death. The rings (called idzila) were believed to have strong ritual powers. Husbands used to provide their wives with rings; the richer the husband, the more rings the wife would wear. Today, it is no longer common practice to wear these rings permanently.In addition to the rings, married women also wore neck hoops made of grass (called isigolwani) twisted into a coil and covered in beads, particularly for ceremonial occasions. Isigolwani are sometimes worn as neckpieces and as leg and arm bands by newly wed women whose husbands have not yet provided them with a home, or by girls of marriageable age after the completion of their initiation ceremony.

Married women also wore a five-fingered apron (called an ijogolo) to mark the culmination of the marriage, which only takes place after the birth of the first child. The marriage blanket (nguba) worn by married women was decorated with beadwork to record significant events throughout the woman’s lifetime.For example, long beaded strips signified that the woman’s son was undergoing the initiation ceremony and indicated that the woman had now attained a higher status in Ndebele society. It symbolised joy because her son had achieved manhood as well as the sorrow at losing him to the adult world.

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A married woman always wore some form of head covering as a sign of respect for her husband. These ranged from a simple beaded headband or a knitted cap to elaborate beaded headdresses (amacubi). Boys usually ran around naked or wore a small front apron of goatskin. However, girls wore beaded aprons or beaded wraparound skirts from an early age. For rituals and ceremonies, Ndebele men adorned themselves with ornaments made for them by their wives.”

So the next time you adorn yourself in that beautiful Ndebele look, remember it is stitched in history and cultural significance.

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