Axis Gallery
November 14 – January 10, 2005

The Ndebele people of South Africa are renowned for their graphic style of both abstract and representational imagery, which they used in both murals and beadwork. Beaded ensembles, each reflecting the maker’s creative powers, were worn on all ceremonial occasions. Beadwork had spiritual power, and was therefore also applied to fertility dolls, scepters, and dance wands, all of which forged a connection to the spirit world. Beadwork also functioned more broadly in Ndebele society, flagging a person’s social status. A woman’s outfit, for example, indicated whether she was initiated, married, or had adult children. Within these conventional categories, however, every piece of beadwork expresses the maker’s personal creativity and vision.

Ndebele at Axis Gallery is a museum-like exhibition that includes works from the early 1900s to the 1970s, revealing thematic continuity and stylistic evolution through this period.The beadwork in this exhibition reveals both thematic continuity and stylistic evolution. It includes works dating from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, characterized by mostly white beads, through to pieces in “1960s style,” in which black, mauve, navy, and green beads predominate.

Ndebele beadwork has long reflected a fascination with the Western world as an “other.” From the 1920s onward, works incorporated motifs that refer to airplanes, electric lights, telephone poles, and urban architecture—signs of modernity.

The front gallery includes rectangular aprons (iziphephetu) worn by unmarried women; fringed aprons (mapoto) worn at marriage, and five-fingered aprons (ijogolo) worn by women with children. Also in this room are a married woman’s leather cape (linaga) with a lengthy train. Trains (nyoga, meaning snake) trailed from the head or back of the neck. The semicircular leather backskirt was worn by an Ndebele man.

The rear gallery includes traditional Ndebele blankets, whose vertical stripes contrast with horizontal beaded panels, and several beaded staffs that channeled spiritual power. Wands in the form of telephone poles, or pylons called telefoni, evoke electricity as a metaphor for spiritual power.

The dolls include a figure of a seated male diviner, a bottle used a fertility doll or to store fertility medicine, and three fertility figures that represent ideal women of marriageable age, wearing beaded body rings (golwane) like those displayed nearby. Neck rings are also visible on some staffs for women.