Wall painting in southern Africa is not a new phenomenon; numerous wall-painting traditions have existed here for centuries. When the Ndebele began to build houses of mud, rather than grass, the women began to decorate the walls in patterns of textured mud, layered with the fingers onto an undercoat of limestone whitewash. Different clays allowed for a varied palette of earth colours: yellow-ochre, reds, white, black, and browns. Each year the rains would wash the walls clean, and the women would re-paint them, the designs changing subtly over time. The directional lines and patterns in the mud were the most important element of the design.
The history of the Ndebele is a story of ongoing struggle to maintain their identity and independence, under extreme conditions. From the early 1800s, they were subjected to sieges, attacks and battles, mainly by white settlers contesting ownership of the land. In 1883, the Ndebele were defeated altogether – partially by being starved out of their hiding places – and adults and children were forced to become farm labourers and servants.
In the face of this, the wall paintings and beadwork became ever more important expressions of Ndebele cultural identity, perpetuated mainly by women. Ndebele wall paintings became more geometric and decorative, although the shapes and images were said to carry symbolic meanings and messages about the inhabitants of the houses. As commercial paints – which did not wash off in the rainy season – became available, the now-familiar blue, red, golden yellow, and green were introduced into the tradition, with the clear black outline delineating shapes and filled in with flat colour. At first the designs were inspired by women’s beadwork traditions, but the patterning rapidly grew to incorporate imagery from the new environments and objects encountered when working in the cities: electric lights, razor blades, swimming pools, multi-story houses, telephones, airplanes, and water taps.
Esther Mahlangu emerged as a master painter of this style. Creative and highly innovative, her paintings caught the eye of several curators. Her work has been shown around the world, and she has received commissions to paint her designs on walls, cars, and even aeroplanes. But her method has always remained the same: she paints without plans, without either under-drawings or sketches. She simply begins at one end, and continues to the other end, painting straight lines with a steady hand, and creating forms with a perfect, instinctive sense of balance and confidence.