Object Story: Ndebele Paintings on Exterior of National Gallery

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Ndebele Painting to Right of Main Entrance
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Ndebele Painting to Left of Main Entrance

These two traditional Ndebele paintings adorn the exterior of the National Gallery. They were painted by Ndebele women just after 1990 in an attempt to make the National Gallery (which was built in 1930 in Dutch Style architecture) into a structure that more accurately represented South Africa. The two paintings were done using the Ndebele house painting technique that was developed in the late 1800’s. What I found interesting about the paintings was how difficult it was to find information on those specific pieces-it was easy to find information on Ndebele house painting in general, but not on any individual work. The paintings feel like a somewhat haphazard apology for the lack of African artwork.

The Ndebele were once fierce warriors that owned a lot of land, but in 1883 they lost a war to the neighboring Boer farmers. In this war they were forced to give up most of their land, and had to endure many other harsh punishments. Traditional Ndebele house painting was one of the creative outcomes of the trauma and suffering caused by said war. Ndebele house painting imitates the patterns used in Ndebele beadwork. The paintings were originally made with fingers, but in the 1960’s people began using chicken feathers as brushes. The two paintings outside the gallery were done using said avian tools.

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