The Ndebele Artists of Mpumalanga: Coming Soon to Joburg

by | Aug 23, 2017 | Arts and Culture, Johannesburg, Mpumalanga | 15 comments

We drove down a dusty KwaMahlanga street, bordered by beige and brown houses. I saw dogs, chickens, and goats, all in various earth tones. Orange and lemon trees, laden with late-winter fruit, provided periodic bursts of yellow and orange.

We pulled in front of an earth-colored house, guarded by an earth-colored dog. A color explosion awaited inside.

Mama Anna Skhosana stood in the middle of the living room, draped in a jewel-toned blue, yellow, and red Ndebele blanket. Her shaved head was adorned with overlapping bands and a thick beaded collar hung around her neck.

Mama Anna’s artwork — a large wooden kudu head covered in intricate beadwork — sat nearly finished on the coffee table. After a few minutes of enthusiastic greetings between Mama Anna, her daughter Minky, and my hosts Nomvula and Mahlapane, Mama Anna sat down to continue beading.

Mama Anna and her daughter MinkyMama Anna works on a beaded kudu head.

Mama Anna workingEvery inch of the kudu is beaded. Mama Anna doesn’t use any glue to attach the beads (at least not that I saw) — only thread.

We returned to Mama Anna’s house the next day and three kudu heads sat lined up on the sofa, ready for delivery to the Mpumalanga Traditional Art Market in Joburg.

Completed Ndebele kudu headsThree completed kudu heads, with pierced ears. All three will be for sale at the Mpumalanga Traditional Art Market.

Mama Anna and finished kudu head
Mama Anna and her dazzling art.

Ndebele Art

Ndebele is one of South Africa’s 11 official languages, and the country’s Ndebele people have a unique cultural heritage. Most South Africans will recognize the traditional Ndebele painting style, in which whitewashed houses and walls are decorated with colorful geometric patterns.

Ndebele houseNot many Ndebeles paint their houses this way anymore, probably because of the huge amount of work and maintenance. But I did see a few.

Painted Ndebele wallKids lean against an Ndebele wall at Mama Sophie’s house.

Ndebele goatsNdebele goat kids.

Ndebele art has grown in popularity recently. In addition to traditional jewelry and paintings, the bold patterns now appear on shoes, placemats, bags, iPad covers, and pretty much any other surface imaginable.

Sibongile with her artArtist Sibongile Mahlangu with some of the Ndebele accessories she creates.

Traditional Ndebele beadworkNdebele beadwork.

Women artists in the KwaMahlanga region, which is an hour or two northeast of Pretoria in Mpumalanga Province, are producing much of the country’s most beautiful Ndebele art. Last weekend, Mpumalanga Traditional Art Market founder Nomvula Cook invited me to meet these talented women, document their work at their homes, and promote the upcoming market. It was a dream assignment.

Nomvula and Mama AnnaNomvula with Mama Anna.

The Mpumalanga Traditional Art Market

Nomvula, who is originally from Lesotho, has decades of experience curating and promoting traditional arts and crafts in South Africa. The annual Mpumalanga Traditional Art Market (MTAM) is Nomvula’s brainchild, raising awareness about the art, providing income streams for artists, and helping to keep the traditions alive. Nomvula focuses particularly on including artists of all ages in the market, ensuring younger women will continue the art form into the future.

This year’s market takes place next weekend, September 2nd and 3rd, at Melrose Arch in Joburg. After visiting the artists in Mpumalanga, I can barely contain my excitement for the market. View the full schedule of the market here — note there will be music and dancing, which is my favorite. Many of the Ndebele artists will be at the market themselves.

I’m running an MTAM photo contest and the winner will receive a free piece of art from the market. More on the contest at the end of this post.

The Ndebele Artists of Mpumalanga

I met about ten Ndebele artists last weekend, and watched them creating their art.

Mama Emily Masemola shares her photosMama Emily Masemola shows us photos of some of her previous work. Mama Emily and her sister, whose name is also Emily, specialize in embroidery.

Mama Emily embroideringMama Emily embroidering.

What struck me the most about the weekend was the intense give-and-take between Nomvula and the artists. Nomvula and her colleague, Mahlapane, spend a lot of time talking to the women, examining their work and providing suggestions on what will sell best at the market. In some cases the collaboration leads to entirely new kinds of art.

Examples of Ndebele embroideryExamples of Mama Emily’s embroidery. When we arrived, Mama Emily had made small embroidered pillows and bags. Nomvula advised that in order to sell successfully at the market, Emily must create much larger pillows and tablecloths.

Mama Emily and EmilyMama Emily and her sister Emily. They have different fathers and I suppose both mothers liked the name.

Mama Sophie with her photoMama Sophie Mahlangu, one of the matriarchs of Ndebele art, shows me a photo of herself dressed in full regalia at the Union Buildings (South Africa’s version of the White House) in Pretoria.

Mama Sophie performingMama Sophie shows off the different objects for sale at her in-home shop. This is a decorative Ndebele ornament used during dance.

Mama Sophie paintingMama Sophie works on a large canvas, to be sold at the market.

Mama Emma with her canvas
My favorite photo of the weekend: Mama Emmah Mnguni sitting in front of a canvas she painted. This canvas will also be at the market, as will Emmah herself.

On our way out of KwaMahlanga on Sunday, we drove back to Mama Emily’s house to see if she had made the larger embroidered pillow that Nomvula suggested. Mama Emily wasn’t home but her son said she was on her way back. We drove off to try to intercept her.

We found Mama Emily walking down the road, returning from town. She had her new pillow cover with her, and showed it to Nomvula. “You’ve done it!” Nomvula exclaimed, and told Mama Emily then and there that she would be coming to the market in Joburg. Mama Emily was overjoyed.

Mama Emily with Nomvula and MahlapaneMama Emily with Nomvula and Mahlapane. I think that smile speaks for itself. I can’t wait to see her again at the market.

Win a Piece of Art at the Mpumalanga Traditional Art Market

If you’d like to own one of these beautiful pieces yourself, here’s what to do:

  1. Like the Mpumalanga Traditional Art Market page on Facebook.
  2. Post a photo of your favorite piece of African art — it can be something you own, something you saw in a shop, something in a museum, even something you made yourself — on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter, and tag me at @2Summers. Tell me why you want to attend MTAM.
  3. I will choose a winner on Friday, 1 September: All entries must be submitted by 12:00 noon SA time on Friday. The winner will receive a piece of art of her/his choice from MTAM, up to the value of R500.
  4. I’ll meet the winner at the market at 10:00 a.m. on 2 September, to help pick out the prize.

In order to enter the contest, you must be available to attend the market on 2 September. Even if you don’t win, entrance to the market is free. You can still come and shop until you drop, which is what I plan to do.

Mama Sophie and HeatherMama Sophia and me. (Photo: Nomvula Cook)

See you at the market.

This post was commissioned by the Mpumalanga Traditional Art Market. Opinions expressed are mine.


  1. Dominique

    What a beautiful blog. Your portraits of the ladies are remarkable

    • 2summers

      Thanks Dominique! Also, you should enter the contest because you seem to have a knack for these things 🙂

  2. Gail Scott Wilson

    Such an amazing experience, love the goat pic. Hopefully see you at the market.

  3. autumnashbough

    Those kudu heads are amazing. How much does something like that go for?

    • 2summers

      I kept asking but couldn’t get an answer. But I’ll find out at the market 🙂

  4. eremophila

    Love the great colours and designs as well as the market concepts.
    Do hope they have great success.

    • 2summers

      Me too! I need to save lots of money between now and 2 September 🙂

  5. Heidi-Lee

    This is amazing! Awesome photos! Wish I was in SA to go to this!

    • 2summers

      Aw, I wish you were too!

  6. UnderAnAfricanSun

    This is some amazing work. Maybe a dumb question, but is there a real Kudu skull under the beads?

    • 2summers

      Hey Kelly, you aren’t the first person to ask that question! So it’s not dumb at all. I should have clarified – the skulls are wooden.

      • UnderAnAfricanSun

        Thanks Heather. I really want one but I need a bigger house!

  7. Siphe Kala

    Hi… I know I. Late to the party but the pieces you showcased are beautiful! Is there a way you can get me in touch with some of the artists? I would like to commission a piece.


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