Africa Media Online caught up with contributing photographer, Ed Suter on his most memorable Ndebele photo shoot. He tells us of the evolution of the Ndebele style of architecture with the colour, pattern and design one excepts in South Africa.

Ed, over to you.

As a photographer, much of my work revolves shooting images of colour, pattern, and design in South Africa so it was natural that I would be drawn to shooting the patterned homes of the Ndebele in Mpumalanga. It was a trip I had dreamed of making but my research always led to a frustrating lack of information. It wasn’t clear to me how to find the homes I wanted to photograph beyond visiting some cultural villages that had a meagre online presence.

A Roman Catholic Church painted in traditional Ndebele designs, Mthambothini, Mpumalanga province, South Africa, April 2016.

A Roman Catholic Church painted in traditional Ndebele designs, Mthambothini, Mpumalanga province, South Africa, April 2016. ©Ed Suter / Africa Media Online

I began my search in Middelburg, close to the Bothshabelo Cultural Centre, an overgrown collection of brilliantly vivid Ndebele homes with a small shop where I was the only visitor. The epicenter of Ndebele art turned out to be the village of Mthambothini where after a lot of confusing directions from strangers, I arrived at the following day. Arriving early in the morning, I stopped my car at another overgrown but interesting looking building, a Roman Catholic church painted in Ndebele style. Here I met a young man from the village who offered to take me to the home of Esther Mahlangu, an international art world star, known for painting a BMW in Ndebele style.

Ndebele artist, Esther Mahlangu, at her home, Mpumalanga province, South Africa, April 2016

Ndebele artist, Esther Mahlangu, at her home, Mpumalanga province, South Africa, April 2016 ©Ed Suter / Africa Media Online

Esther was sitting in the shade of a rondawel, her legs stretched out before her with traditional isigolwana, the Ndebele beaded bracelets, around her ankles and a board on which she was painting on her lap. She was painting with a remarkably steady hand using a chicken feather dipped in natural pigment. She told me about exhibiting at the Pompidou Centre in Paris and an upcoming trip to Los Angeles. On-site she had a gallery and a shop along with bed and breakfast accommodation. I changed my plans immediately and decide to spend the night at Esther’s house.

Mthambothini has many houses decorated by the Ndebele women in styles unique and personal to the painter. The art of painting the bold geometric shapes and iconography on their homes is a tradition handed down by Ndebele women to their daughters. The paintings may represent a rite of passage – a marriage, an initiation – as well tribal allegiance and the individuality of the painter. It’s not uncommon to see images of daily life on the walls – taps, buildings, telephones, and airplanes – icons of aspiration. Esther Mahlangu has made the motif of the razor blade her own signature symbol.

There were other leads I followed and came across a Ndebele painted school or home but nowhere else had such a concentration of patterned homes and even the Ndebele parliament building as Mthambothini. It was worthwhile to visit the Kghodwana cultural village near KwaMhlanga, where a kind security guard allowed me to wander the homes representing the evolution of the Ndebele style of architecture and decoration, despite the fact it was closed on a Sunday.

An example of a traditional Ndebele house in Bothshabelo cultural village, Mpumalanga province, South Africa, April 2016.

An example of a traditional Ndebele house in Bothshabelo cultural village, Mpumalanga province, South Africa, April 2016. ©Ed Suter / Africa Media Online

Here under a perfect blue and cloudy sky, I was able to photograph some beautifully preserved examples of the decoration unique to this part of the world.

About the Photographer: Ed Suter

Africa Media Online contributor photographer, Ed Suter

Ed Suter is a Cape Town based photographer, who focuses his lens on the people and places of South Africa for a number of magazines and private clients. Ed has an extensive catalogue of images of Cape Town and its architecture, images of everyday life and a collection of portraits of South Africa’s fascinating faces.He photographs all over the country, from working with David Beckham in a township to corporate executives in Sandton. South African life as viewed by Ed has an undercurrent of humour and a feeling of fresh discovery. His book of images taken on the city streets of South Africa, “Sharp Sharp” was published by Quivertree Publications and led to exhibitions of his work in Paris, Amsterdam, and Milan.

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