The Ndundza Ndebele women of northwestern South Africa have been decorating the walls of their compounds for generations. The tradition, called ukugwala, began as a way for women to prove themselves as good wives and beautify their homes before sending their sons to the forest for initiation school. As Ndebele women transitioned from living in round mud houses to rectangular concrete houses, moved from open farms to sequestered suburban townships, and struggled to cope with the realities of a post-Apartheid South Africa, their paintings evolved both stylistically and contextually. Today, Ndebele painting is a fleeting art form that has been sustained in two small communities, Weltevrde and Klipgat, where tourism and international attention have kept it alive.

Ndebele painting began as finger painting called khupno in the 18th century. Women of this era created the khupno designs by dragging their fingers through wet clay after re-plastering the walls of their homes. The resulting forms, sets of horizontal or undulating lines, gave the mud structures a dynamic texture that hid handprints imprinted during construction.

In the early 20th century, kgupho evolved into a more structured form of painting. Women began to make large geometric shapes and horizontal “belts” on their farmhouses. The earliest designs were inspired by the forms in Ndebele beadwork and from objects the women used in their daily lives. They may have also been influenced by nearby Sotho and Xhosa painting. At first, the designs were made using black and white soils but later, they also incorporated red and yellow soils found on the farm, and blue washing powder.

Apartheid had a profound impact on the context in which the Ndebele paintings were created. Following the Land Areas Act of 1953, women who were living in rural areas on farms were forced together into suburban townships. Once the majority of the Ndebele were consolidated in one region, the style of the paintings grew to be more unified.  However, in these new areas, women struggled to find the materials that they had historically used to make the paintings. In an effort to continue to attract tourists, who had begun to discover the Ndebele designs in the 1940s, the KwaNdebele government and Pretoria City Council provided paint for the women during these years. Without this intervention, it is safe to say that paintings likely would not have survived the apartheid years.

In the past 50 years, as the designs have been continuously iterated, Ndundza Ndebele painting has increased in complexity.  Most notably, the designs have become smaller and more detailed. Over time, families also developed their own versions of designs that were passed from mother to daughter.

As a result, Ndebele designs have begun to function as a form of heritage that shows family lineage and regionality. While some women paint specific designs for their cultural meaning, or for their aspirational qualities, others insist that the designs are nothing more than forms that resemble cultural objects. Despite this widespread debate, brightly colored acrylic paints have replaced the earth toned soil colors on nearly every Ndebele home. These colors have no symbolic importance, although many women have distinct preferences.

In the 1990s, a number of Ndebele women, including Leah Msiza, Francina Ndimande, and Esther Mahlangu had the opportunity to travel abroad to paint everything from canvases and museum walls to cars and airplanes. During these trips, the women experimented with new designs and adapted their style to the preferences of the international art market.

When they returned home, these women continued to paint their houses and also made the designs on canvases, sneakers, t-shirts, and even on the bodies of famous models. Some continued to paint with chicken feathers, as they had before their travels, while others adopted toothbrushes and standard paint brushes. Most continued to do without straight edges or rulers, preferring to use their well trained eyes. After being recognized by the international art community, these women and the assistants they took abroad became the painting authorities in their home communities. Their complex, bold, graphic geometric style became the Ndebele style.

Today, in the large majority of Ndebele communities, wall paintings are few and far between. Where they do exist, they are often only on one wall or on an outer gate instead of encapsulating the compound, the way they did in the past. Women who used to spend their days on the farm working now travel three hours to Pretoria each day to work as domestic workers. Younger generations are not only wholly uninterested in the paintings, but also were at school when their mothers were painting, and as a result know nothing of the designs. The gogos (grandmothers), who were the most passionate about the form, are slowly dying. Making the paintings are expensive, and because of poor marketing for tourism, family feuds, internal competition, and failing road structures, the future of painting remains uncertain at best; the funds do not exist.

In 2015, it seems that tourism and international influence may be the only thing keeping Ndebele painting alive. In Weltevrde, a majority of the women who continue to decorate their houses are encouraged by the way that outsiders have praised and validated their tradition.  Many make the paintings to continue the legacy of their family members who have traveled abroad. A number of men have also become interested in paintings now that the commercial benefits are clear. In Klipgat, BMW, Atlas Paints and the Pretoria City Council continue to provide paint to the community. The village chief encourages the women to paint both for tourists and to remember the community’s traditions. Having seen the successes of the women in Weltevrde, many women in Klipgat are inspired by the opportunities that painting could bring.

However, tourism is not the only reason that the art form remains relevant; the cultural elements of Ndebele painting are not dead. Paintings continue to function as a way women show their love and dedication to Ndebele culture, prove they are hardworking good wives and daughter-in-laws worthy of their lobola (bride price), and to continue the traditions of their gogos. Women continue to renovate their homes before they send their sons to initiation school, and abide by the practice where once their sons leave they are not allowed to work. The majority of Ndebele women have neck rings, beaded aprons and other traditional clothes packed away which can be retrieved for important events. The key difference is that today, in addition to seeing value in the paintings for their “traditional cultural purposes,” an overwhelming majority of the women who paint are linked to either tourism or the international art community in a very direct way.

Ndebele women do not see a conflict between culture and business. Women who paint on canvases and other objects to sell to tourists do not see painting on the walls as a pre-requisite. As the women who solidified their importance of paintings within their home communities begin to die out, it is possible that Ndebele painting will only live on through tourist objects. The question of whether to paint typically comes down to a matter of resources and time. If women are given paint, often they will make the designs. If not, many are no longer willing to make the investment.