Most of the designs women paint onto the facades of homesteads are at once starkly symmetrical and highly inventive. Unique patterns are created by combining simple geometric shapes like triangles, diamonds and circles.
Ndebele muralists often develop highly sophisticated design solutions to accentuate doorways. In some cases, the idea of symmetry is implied even on the facades of homesteads where these doorways are off-centre.
Both contemporary and older Ndebele murals are characterized by a bold sense of design. Their impact depends partly on the fact that individual sections are outlined in white or black to separate and accentuate different sections and areas.
Simple horizontal bands are in some cases used to produce richly inventive designs. In examples like these, muralists rely on subtle variations such as colour and width to create complex patterns on the facades of dwellings.
South Sotho women sometimes etch patterns into the wet earth of newly plastered walls. Since the visual impact of these designs depends in part on the way light falls on the surface of the walls, the appearance of murals of this kind changes in the course of a single day.
Different tools are used to etch patterns onto the wet surface. Women sometimes incise these patterns onto the wall with their fingers. In most cases, they also rely on the use of small twigs, kitchen utensils like forks and sturdy sticks to add variety and complexity when not using commercial paints.
Occasionally, South Sotho women create murals by embedding pebbles into the newly plastered walls instead of scratching into the wet plaster. The production of these pebble mosaics is comparatively labour intensive but, unlike painted murals, they do not have to be renewed on an annual basis.
Despite the widespread practice of producing murals, homesteads are often left unadorned. There are various reasons for this but, in most cases, women are simply too busy attending to their fields and families to devote time to activities of this kind.
Even though women in some communities choose not to paint their homesteads, they generally invent other ways to mark facades. This includes the addition of striking frames to accentuate windows and doors.
By Professor Sandra Klopper