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Pride of the Ndebele.

The remarkable spatial, formal and decorative qualities of southern Ndebele art and architecture strongly affirm the identity of a displaced people. Examination of their rituals and artefacts offers fascinating insights into how a culture under threat engages its creative power in an act of renewal. In the climate of change being heralded by the new South Africa, the search continues for an appropriate architectural identity rooted in the African soft. In the latter part of the twentieth century, a rural group of indigenous people in South Africa spoke and gave expression to a unique and appropriate architecture as part of their quest for cultural identity. They are the southern Ndebele.

Ndebele architecture has been viewed as a style, but the inherent nature and structure of it is a demonstration of how rural women give aesthetic and architectonic order to their world. The architecture of the southern Ndebele is rooted in its history and context. Climate and social organisation are the basic determinants of form. Ndebele art and architecture show uniquely how a minority group existing in a multi-cultural milieu (exposed to both traditional tribal and twentieth-century Western influence) can through adaptation and appropriation develop a unique hybrid artistic and architectural expression as part of a quest to claim their cultural identity.

In the sixteenth century, the southern Ndebele were a splinter group which broke away from the southward migration of the Nguni people who went on to establish the Zulu empire. The southern Ndebele moved into the mile-high savannah grassland plateaus of the Transvaal where they co-existed with the neighbouring Sotho-Tswana from whom they were to adopt and adapt a climatically efficient courtyard architecture. The two main South African ethnic groups - Nguni and Sotho/Tswana - lived in settlements which were representative of a cattle culture. The focus of the settlement was the cattle byre - a male dominated spatial centre, around which a circular settlement pattern, representing the greater chieftaincy, was established. The Ndebele were to adopt the courtyard architecture of these settlements. The basic spatial model is that of a rectangular walled court, with the centrally-sited main house divided into a front and back. The courtyard functions as an outdoor room where much of the daily cooking, washing and socialising takes place. The house itself provides sleeping, living and storage accommodation.

The homestead is an efficient model of climatic control - in its low humidity environment, the courtyard ventilates well in summer, while trapping heat in winter. The thickened out bases of the courtyard walls provide seats affording comfort and protection from wind and sun. Ndebele homesteads also function as part of the ritual process of the rites of passage. The frequently-practised rituals provide the pretext for decoration and architectural embellishment. The homestead itself becomes the decorated backdrop to the performance of these ceremonies which take place both within and outside its courts. In affirming Ndebele identity, art and architecture form a crucial part of the ritual process.

The emergence of a distinct Ndebele identity has its origins as a result of the Ndebele defeat at the hands of the Boers in 1883, the resultant dislocation of the tribe, their subsequent indenture, protracted slavery and restrictions on their movement. The Ndebele women took responsibility for re-establishing their extended families which were now isolated, as units, on farms. By doing this the former male-dominated spatial centre of the cattle-culture was shifted to that of the home. In the early 1940s the Ndebele found themselves servants to white landlord farmers. This labour tenancy afforded them the opportunity to develop an artistic expression centred around their homes, celebrating their identity through the rites of passage. With remarkable tenacity, they protected their language while assimilating successfully with various Other cultures.

Home to the Ndebele is not a house in the Western sense, it is the greater extent of the landholding of which the courtyards, the detached huts of the settlement, the cattle byre, chicken runs and cultivated fields are all perceived as one. There is a clear articulation between the domain of the women and the domain of the men, which face one another across the arrival area. The courts offer a rich diversity of options, choices and spatial experiences of the Ndebele outdoor rooms. The views afforded between pavilions and across courts can be likened to the open-ended experience of a village, prompting an African interpretation of Palladio's notion that 'a house is not a home unless it is a village'.

The southern Ndebele's adherence to traditional cultural codes of behaviour provided the discipline which determined the basic form and organisation of the homestead. A homestead reflects a polygamous man and the courtyards of his wives. There is an explicit social order within the imuzi (or homestead) - the social interaction between the place of men and that of women is evident in both the ceremonial and daily rituals. Each wife's territory is clearly demarcated by its own courtyard, home and allied pavilions. The left/right relationship of wives' homesteads located next to each other, gives rise to the aesthetic and spatial notion of symmetry and duality.

The front courtyard walls present an image of a unified extended family. Growth takes place backward on an implied diagonal, and subsequently forward to enclose the arrival area. The rites give further expression to the relationship between the sexes with the thanksgiving for the women taking place within the homestead forecourt and that for the men in the arena of the arrival area. Architectural permanence is vested in the women's domain. This domain represents the inner world of the women and it is where the children and family are nurtured and take sanctuary from the harshness and inhospitability of the African veld.

The buildings of the men are made of impermanent materials - the men being of the outer world. The place of the men - the shaded mtunzi - the ceremonial men's enclosure, and the centrally-sited and important cattle and sheep byres sit opposite the settlement. The men, from the position of the mtunzi, receive guests while guarding access to both the cattle and the settlement.

The rites of passage allied to the fertility cult were the mechanism used to affirm the identity of a scattered nation. These affirmations took the form of oral tradition, personal decoration, performance art, artistic and architectural expression. Ceremonies provided a pretext for bonding with other Ndebele within walking distance. The reciprocity of these ceremonies ensured frequent contact. The domain of the women became the decorated stage-set/back-drop to these rituals. Bold colour became the means of proclaiming themselves under the vastness of an African sky. In the 1940s, the single act of an Ndebele woman discovering the intensity of Reckitts blue and limewash and subsequently latex emulsion paints was to spark a regional movement of decoration.

For many years, the Ndebele have been represented as mural artists who practised beadwork as part of personal adornment. In fact, an Ndebele woman simultaneously practises the art of architecture, mural art, sculptural embellishment of walls, free-standing sculpture, formal garden design and personal adornment. The practice of each of these art forms informs the other. The Ndebele were well versed in anthropomorphism. Their articles of personal adornment responded to the inherent axial nature of the body with the dualities of arms and legs, laws of symmetry and proportion. Ideas developed for decoration and embellishment were transposed into architecture, becoming a syntax. The concept of axiality is given expression in Ndebele architecture through the various entrance thresholds which heighten the experience of entry, ritualising movement along a route. The sculptured embellishment of these entrance thresholds and the placing of free-standing objects create a series of layers through which architecture is experienced. Colourful mural art fronting the arrival area adds to the formality, unifying the marked frontality of the wives' courts.

Spatially, Ndebele architecture demonstrates the sequential build-up of outdoor spaces through incremental enclosure of detached pavilions and walls set about a central axis. The plan is in the mind. The formality of the main court with its centrally aligned entrances and colourful forecourt walls contrasts with the open ended loose fit structure of growth courts, to the rear of the settlement. The experience of entry is celebrated through additional layering of courtyard walls and the use of the formal garden, appropriated from white suburbia, as a way of extending that route.

The strength of Ndebele spatial models and aesthetic grammar allowed them to invest images reinterpreted from other cultures, with their own symbolic meaning. They had an affinity with the stylised art deco that was prevalent in cities such as Pretoria in the 1940s and '50s. The changing trends in Western society, notably the American car culture of the '50s, fashion and infatuation with images of power/electricity/jet aeroplanes, were other catalysts. 'We see what we want to see and make it our own', proclaims a Ndebele matriarch.

In the mid-'70s, the Ndebele, as victims of apartheid's social engineering, were assigned a designated area - KwaNdebele. Yet again, the Ndebele had to adapt to a change in social circumstance through being slotted into a quasi-urban situation. In this attempt to impose pseudo-independence upon the Ndebele, a civil war ensued. The Ndebele were without their traditional leadership and struggling to re-adapt to a cash economy. Once again, the women acquired increased status in their society through demanding the vote and resolving the conflict, resulting in the re-establishment of the traditional royalty.

In surviving the harsh realities of a cash economy, commuter society and consumerism, there is little time or resource for artistic expression. Currently, selected artists are a marketable commodity to a world audience. However, artistic expression, for ordinary Ndebeles, is kept alive through performance art allied to ritual. It reveals how they are powerfully appropriating and embracing global culture.

In the transition from squatter camp to more freed abode there is evidence of the vestiges of architectural elements of the former culture. We are waiting for its eventual evolution.
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Copyright 1995, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:African indigenous people
Author:Rich, Peter
Publication:The Architectural Review
Date:Mar 1, 1995
Words:1650
Previous Article:Cape Town catalyst.
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