African art

Chester Higgins once stated that” We are not Africans because we are born in Africa, we are Africans because Africa is born in us” This is so because there are multitudes of debates that rage over the actual definition of this term. In our contemporary times, we have to accept that identities and terminologies change as circumstances change: There is no such thing as a trans-historical African identity. Therefore, in Africa’s ancient history the term ‘African’ as an identity would have had no meaning; people defined themselves as members of kingdoms, religions, and ethnic groups.

However, these identities were still of people in the continent we call Africa. Some may use race to define the African but the people of Africa is more than a name, it is linked to indigenous rights and issues of sovereignty. Africaness and skin color are not verifications of each other. ” Blackness fails at every level in both the historical and political context. Africans are the natural people of Africa” The diverse hair textures, the diverse skin hues, are all specific adaptations to living in the diverse African landscape.

For this reason alone ‘skin blackness” is not an absolute marker for African identity. ‘African’ refers exclusively to the historical people of Africa and their descendants in the Diaspora. In plain language, no one is an African unless they can also be considered a ‘Black’ person. But not every ‘Black person’ is an African. Clarke denotes that “ Black, or Blackness, tells you how you look without telling you who you are, whereas Africa, or Africana, relates you to land, history, and culture”

Unfortunately, the most distinctive feature of this African identity, beyond relative/subjective phenol-typical similarities, is the history of global race-based oppression North, East, South, and West, from Brazil to Bahrain—knowing no land of exception. ” Historically, In every instances, European self-interest is the overriding factor defining the boundaries of “Africaness”,It becomes critical, in a modern plural world, that the issue of identity be left to the people wearing those identities. Because no matter how else African people define themselves; Islamic, Christian, American, Hispanic, South African, Ethiopian, Hausa, etc.

It is that African identity that impacts their relationship with the broader society. It is certainly not the only consideration in the lives of human beings, but certainly a very central one. Race, ethnicity, and nationality are three considerations operating on identity. Race is the largest group, which hugs both ethnicity, and supersedes nationality. Nationalities are just the color of someone’s passport, or the territories people pledge allegiance to. So when Eritrea became independent, over night the Ethiopian people in the new borders became Eritrean; It is nothing more than a political territory.

The Tigray people of both Eritrea and Ethiopia are still speaking the same language, the only difference is they pay taxes to different government departments. The same is true for the Zulus of South Africa and the Ndebele of Zimbabwe (same ancestry, same Ngoni language, etc). And no one has a Zulu Nation without first defining Zulu; likewise you cannot have an African anything, without first defining African. African identity is not an open door, it does not have open membership. You cannot just come in like that. It does not work like that.

It is exclusive because it has to be, it is exclusive because our experience is exclusive,Alik Shahadah. Design in the Ndebele African context Design is the creation of a plan or convention for the construction of an object or a system (as in architectural blueprints, engineering drawings, business processes, circuit diagrams and sewing patterns). There are countless philosophies for guiding design as the design values and its accompanying aspects within modern design vary, both between different schools of thought and among practicing designers Holm, Ivar (2006) denotes that “Design philosophies are usually for determining design goals.

” A design goal may range from solving the least significant individual problem of the smallest element, to the most holistic influential utopian goals. Design goals are usually for guiding design. However, conflicts over immediate and minor goals may lead to questioning the purpose of design, perhaps to set better long term or ultimate goals. The term “decorative art” is a traditional term used in historical discourses to describe craft objects, and also sits within the umbrella of Applied arts and traditional arts

Cultural Commodification The advanced English dictionary views the term commodification as the “The assignment of a commercial value to something previously valueless. ”However in the context of this discourse the term commodification refers to the assignment of commercial value to something that was of cultural value Commodification of African art Brief history of the Ndebele people Although the origins of the South African Ndebele are shrouded in mystery, they have been identified as one of the Nguni tribes.

“The Ndebele people were originally an offshoot of the Nguni people of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. The language amaNala and amaNzunza are related to that of the Ndebele people of Zimbabwe”The Ndebele are a branch of the Zulu’s who split from King Shaka in the early 1820s under the leadership of Mzilikazi, a former general in Shaka’s army. In the 1820’s Mzilikazi over-powered the Manala and decided to settle down with them. After some time, he became afraid that Shaka would send an army after him. With a clever plan he lured the Ndebele men away, got the others together and killed them.

He then took the women and livestock and then moved northwards in 1834 into present-day Zimbabwe where they battled with the Shona people; eventually carving out a home now called Matabeleland and encompassing the west and southwest region of the country and finally settled in Bulawayo in Zimbabwe. That is the origin of the Ndebele of Zimbabwe. Wall Art Designs Out of each of these white-on-black repressive experiences, expressive symbols were developed by artists within the subordinate groups. Often, these examples of creativity (images, forms, songs, etc.

) were signs which could be “read” as messages by the oppressed group. Like the African American quilts “instruments of cultural transmission” (Freeman, 1996) — that frequently served as guideposts to slaves in transit, the wall paintings of the Ndebele became guideposts for indigenous persons passing farm buildings set far back from the road. They announced: “We are Ndebele. Ndebele live here. ” Loubser (1994) confirms that “owing to the difficult circumstances of the Ndzundza, the paintings became an expression of both cultural resistance and continuity.

” White farmers, who “saw themselves as politically more powerful and culturally superior,” viewed this cultural form as decorative and harmless and thus allowed it to continue. This on its own clearly cites that the art of the Ndebele communicated or acted as a smokescreen for communicating very important messages Levinsohn (1985) contends that “the initial wall art designs and symbolic forms are derivative of centuries-old Ndebele beadwork forms and patterns. Earliest wall art shows tonal patterns painted by the women with their fingers on the mud/dung walls of their cone-on-cylinder, round houses.

Prior to the French introduction of acrylic pigments into South Africa in the 1940s, only natural pigments were used. Monochrome ochres (a painting that is applied to a wall surface ), browns, black, and limestone whitewash were the initial hues”. This then means that the elements of size, direction, and line pattern were more important than polychrome(a piece of work composed of or decorated in many colors. The Ndebele tribe originally in the early 18th century lived in grass huts. They began using mud-walled houses in the mid-18th century when these symbols begin to be created on their houses and walls.

These expressive symbols were used communication between sub-groups of the Ndebele people. They stood for their continuity and cultural resistance to their circumstances. The Boer farmers did not understand the meaning and viewed it as cultural art that was not harmful, so it was allowed to continue. These wall paintings done by the women was their secret code to their people, disguised to anyone but the Ndebele. In the beginning of house painting their symbols and patterns were often based from Ndebele’s beadwork. The patterns were tonal and painted with the women’s fingers. The original paint on the house was a limestone whitewash.

The colors added to make the paintings were mostly natural pigments consisting of browns, blacks, and ochers. Most of the patterns were of a V( known as the chevron pattern )shape and a very simple triangle on a large shape of color. The patterns, earth tones, directions, and sizes were more important than the present-day vivid and bright colors Priebatsch (1977) documents that “The walls had to be resurfaced seasonally, after the summer rains, due to the fragility of the natural pigments. ”This ritual endeavor, along with the beadwork production, provided two of the main traditional duties for the household’s women.

These familial activities, often practiced during the initiation process, allowed for the transfer of patterning strategies from mother to daughter, and from female in-laws to new Ndebele wives secured from other indigenous groups. In addition to conveying self-identity, personal prayers, values, and emotions, wall painting as a traditional Ndebele design art has become deeply ingrained in the family marriage tradition. Courtney-Clarke (1986) depicts the married women of the household as responsible for designing images for the outer gates, front and side walls, and sometimes even interior rooms.

Preferring geometric forms even when they are representing realistic, natural, or manufactured items, Ndebele tend to abstract these images and re-create them as symbolic, repetitive icons. Even though overall Ndebele wall designs show increasing external influence an example can be derived from the remote Nebo area of the Northern Province of South Africa where one can still see the traditional black soot lines, limestone whitewash, and red and dark red brown, now complemented by sky

blue, deep blue, yellow-gold, green, and occasionally pink. Here, there exists a sense of fleeting authenticity. Derived from the sowetan:Sitting outside her front gate in Nebo, Mrs. Elisabeth Mahlangu’s describes the chevron pattern on her wall as important to her family clan. For the 28 years of her marriage, mhlope (white) the overcomer, and mnyama (darkness) the balancer, have surrounded her and visually affirmed her and other family clan members. This then means that the design of the pattern has a spiritual conortation.

Dynamics in the commodification of Ndebele art Since the democratization of 1994, South African indigenous communities have experienced the antithesis of Margaret Mead’s “non-violent transformation of their society. ” (1975) At the turn of the last century, European colonists brought their written language and numbering to the regions of the Ndebele, who were influenced to produce traditional bead work and wall art interspersed with these foreign symbols of letters and numbers.

Today, design decisions are impacted by a world of cultures setting foot in Ndebele homes wired for electricity, light, and sometimes television. This phenomenon, coupled with the eye-opening global travel of designated “master artists” (Loubser, 1994) such as Francina Ndimande and Esther Mahlangu, has provided Ndebele imagination with new symbol sources and dramatic possibilities for color relationships. Though exposure to, and exploration of, other cultures by Ndebele women proves evident in their art, former President Nelson Mandela rightly assures us that “…

some cultural traditions have been forsaken, [but] others still form an integral part of [South African] daily life, often blending with each other and with modern elements to present a fascinating juxtaposition of old and new. ” (Magubane, 1998) Important also is a new cross-fertilization between visual cultures that once were in conflict, but currently service one another. Ndebele wall art now includes stylized images of airplanes and light bulb fixtures, while current Coca-Cola cans and British Airways airplane tails display Ndebele abstract patterns, and de Beers produces pseudo-Ndebele beaded collars from precious gems.

The mainstream has found the Ndebele and neither community remains the same. Shifts and adaptations in Ndebele wal0l painting are expressive responses to powerful new external stimuli. These are: ?the introduction of electricity brings with it the ability to view the outside world and its objects; ? personal economics — daily migration on buses into the city for employment limits time for creating; ? tourist and local markets have influenced a change in scale from painting houses to painting small portable masonite panels; ? global and domestic travel by the artists;

?national political consciousness has sparked the use of ANC colors and the current South African flag in beadwork and on walls; and ? global corporate patronage. Ndebele women have been observed over the past four years to gain tremendous market experience. These women have now come to understand the changes in the intent behind their ritual endeavor of art making. Originally, their art work was solely the practice of making beaded and painted forms for life as Ndebele people, but today their art making has some economic impetus, not only traditional motivations.

Through their created art forms (bead and wall art) and their lived art forms (unique style of personal adornment), these women carry the tenets of Ndebele culture in transition. This is a mega-transition, forcing personal ideas and symbols out of the family context and control and into global arenas where control is synonymous with economic or political power. The Ndebele are a sophisticated people who have developed a consciousness for personal art, and for public art, which may be for sale.

Their term isikhethu, meaning “real Ndebele” and reflecting an idea or creation exhibiting those things they value, can be compared to their term isikhuwa, meaning “the foreign ideas of whites” and referring to contemporary colors or symbols suitable “for the informal market. “van Vuuren, (1994). In the book African Art in Transit (1994), Steiner discusses the perceptual shift of art into commodity, which he believes changes the spirit of the art as well as the social life of the artists.

Because of the growing international trade in beautiful, non-traditional versions of Ndebele ancestral art forms, there is mounting debate on the ethics of making modified ritual forms to meet non-Ndebele consumer demand. Supporters claim that the women and their families need the income, while contenders question the formal precedents being established for younger creators . This argument clearly cites that the traditional art has now gained a financial connotation and lost its traditional value Ndebele mural art advancing into the twenty first century

According to Addriene (2000:8) The Ndebele Nation is concerned about the dedication of its pre-teen and pre-initiate young women to creatively maintaining Ndebele classic artistry in beaded and painted form. Through the efforts of His Majesty King Mayitjha III, the Ndebele sovereign; his elders; and the two master artists, Ester Mahlangu and Francina Ndimande; painting lessons with both traditional chicken feather brushes and modern brushes took place daily at Mabhoko, the place of the King’s kraal (power seat) in Mpumalanga Province.

This manner of self-education is a more formalized method for transferring the values and skills that are taught during the initiation schooling. For centuries, Ndebele women, by tradition, have been given the right and responsibility to represent the society through their art forms. Traditional Ndebele sensitivities to form and color, and preferences for geometric symmetry (Schneider, 1985) have survived the beginning stages of modernization, due in part to their annual initiation process, ritually performed by elder Ndebele women with their female adolescents.

Initiation provides the vehicle for passing on the traditional skills, practices and attitudes necessary to be a good Ndebele woman. For young Ndebele women — whose exposure to the western world, its images, lifestyles, and value systems exceeds that of their parents — being recognized as Ndebele contributes to a secure sense of self. The art of the Ndebele is at the core of this initiation ritual, which restores balance to the life equation in these South African provinces.

Ndebele art speaks no longer just to the indigenous community, but now serves also as an aesthetic commodity, an economic “bridge to the 21st century” for the Ndebele people amongst other African people. Witnessing an artistic society of women proceeding through their own cultural aesthetic evolution exemplifies the discussions of Shohat (1998) and other authors who call for coalition between so-called first world women of color and so-called third world women of color. Through this coalition, Ndebele women now express their voice on the future of this new commodity, the package of the Ndebele image and material culture.

”The vibrant symbols and expressions portray communications of personal prayers, self-identification, values, emotions, and marriage. Sometimes the male initiation, known as the wela, was a reason for repainting, but the ritual was not expressed. One quality of life that has never been expressed or directed through their walls is sacred expression. The rituals and religions have never been a part of the Ndebele house paintings. The women of the Ndebele are often the tradition carriers and the main developer of the wall art of their home.

The tradition and style of house painting is passed down in the families from generation to generation by the mothers. A well-painted home shows the female of the household is a good wife and mother. She is responsible for the painting of the outside gates, front walls, side walls, and usually the interior of her home. One thing that has changed since the beginning of the house painting and the present-day wall art is their styles and designs . This is due to the commodification of the art form.

Numerous individuals use the art designs for their appealing effect thus divulging from the primary purpose of the art form discussed earlier on. In a nutshell one can denote that the Ndebele painting designs which once had a religious, social or political bearing due to commodification have partly lost that which they once commanded . However note-able is the fact that the design acts as inspiration for numerous artists from different backgrounds . Most importantly is that the designs act as a platform upon which the Ndebele women undergo emancipation and empowerment.

References Alik Shahada. ( 2009)African Race Today: Defining African Identity Today Courtney-Clarke, M. (1986). Ndebele. New York: Rizzoli International Publications, Inc. Freeman, R. L. (1996). A Communion of the Spirits: African-American Quilters, Preservers, and their Stories. Nashville, TN: Rutledge Hill Press. Knight, N. & Priebatsch, S. (1977, November). Ndebele dress and beadwork. Lantern 27:4, pp 40-45. Levinsohn, R. (1985, August-September). Beadwork as Cultural Icon. American Craft 45:4, pp 24-31.