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Date: early 20th century
Medium:Glass beads, cotton yarn, and goatskin
Geographic Location: South Africa
Dimensions: Overall: 42 1/2 x 57 1/2 in. (107.95 x 146.05 cm)
Credit Line: Dallas Museum of Art, The Otis and Velma Davis Dozier Fund
Object Number: 1991.24

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This wide rectangular beadwork strip adorns a goatskin cape and is typical of capes worn by Ndebele (pronunciation) women during ceremonial occasions and initiation rites. The colorful geometric designs on the beadwork are a common feature of Ndebele decoration and can also be found in murals painted on Ndebele houses. These designs, passed from mother to daughter, are used by Ndebele women as an expression of creativity and as a public indication of social status.


Though the decorative style embodied by this cape only dates back to the beginning of the twentieth century, it has become an important, uniting cultural tradition for the Ndebele peoples who were scattered and forced into labor by Dutch settlers in 1882.


Process and Materials

Ndebele Style

The Ndebele Peoples of South Africa 


Process and Materials

This cape consists of a goatskin attached to a wide rectangular beadwork panel. The red, orange, green, and blue beads were attached individually, and reinforced by pulling the thread through them three times each.


Ndebele Style

The symmetrical, geometric shapes and bright, vibrant colors of this beadwork cape characterize a style that has been adopted by many female Ndebele muralists and seamstresses. The line of cut-out squares at the bottom of this cape and its relatively simple pattern suggest that it is an early example of Ndebele beadwork. Because of the increased availability of foreign goods to South Africa following apartheid (a-par-tate), more recent Ndebele beadwork features beads in greater numbers and patterns of greater complexity, just as Ndebele mural painting has seen a similar proliferation of forms and colors. Additionally, both Ndebele murals and beadwork have, more recently, begun to incorporate abstracted, geometric representations of plants, animals, and other objects from the world.
While there is no evidence that specific messages are conveyed through the geometric forms or colors of the Ndebele style, both Ndebele murals and beadwork contain some important indicators of social status. For instance, Ndebele murals can, to an informed viewer, indicate the chiefdom of the family living in the house on which they are painted.
Because Ndebele beadwork adapts a broad, accepted style, it can be used to express a wearer’s individual identity within her cultural group on ceremonial occasions. Ndebele women wear beadwork of increasing complexity as they age, so an elaborate beadwork cape might suggest that its wearer was a married woman who had completed her initiation. In contrast, a young, unmarried woman might wear a simple string of beads.


The Ndebele Peoples of South Africa

In 1882, after many smaller conflicts over land and resources, Dutch settlers launched a full-scale invasion of the Ndebele peoples. By the end of the invasion, many Ndebele had been killed, imprisoned, or scattered across southern Africa and forced into labor. During the apartheid era, the Ndebele peoples of South Africa were relocated and given limited governing authority.  

Today, the Ndebele, a Nguni-speaking peoples, are divided into two groups: those who live in Zimbabwe, called the North Sotho; and those who live in the Mpumalanga and Limpopo provinces in South Africa. Ndebele women of South Africa create beadwork that decorates clothing and items related to initiation, weddings, and healing rites. They are also renowned for the murals they paint on the walls of their houses. The Ndebele number nearly three hundred and thirty thousand today.


This traditional linaga is embellished with beads of red, green, orange, blue, and pink. The curved shape of the cape is a result of the way that skins have been stitched together. Limpopo Province, South Africa, 1976-1982.




Encouraging Dialogue
1. Identify primary and secondary colors on the beadwork cape. Next, look for shapes and patterns and describe what you see. 
2. Is it unusual to see clothing in an art museum?  Why or why not? Why might this cape belong on display in an art museum?
3. The beadwork on this cape indicates that it was made for a married woman to wear on ceremonial occasions. Are there examples of graphic symbols, patterns, or motifs on the clothes we wear which communicate something specific about us? List examples and discuss what suggest or communicate.
Making Connections
1. Explore clothes-making traditions in two African cultures through a comparison of the Skirt with grey applique, which comes from the Kuba peoples of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and this Cape. What similarities or differences do you see between the Skirt and the Cape?
2. Listen to this radio segment about the international clothing market: http://www.npr.org/blogs/money/2010/11/19/131450313/the-friday-podcast-pietra-rivoli-s-t-shirt-travels. Then, research your favorite article of clothing and write its narrative. Where did its materials come from? Where was it assembled? Consider the difference between a culture that primarily buys its clothes from the world market and one, like the Ndebele, which primarily makes its clothes. 
3. Make a list of clothes and other adornments you have worn on ceremonial occasions. (Yarmulkes at Bar Mitzvahs, for example, but also the uniforms you might have worn in the marching band or caps and gowns you have worn during graduations.) Choose one or two examples and research the history and significance of them.
4. In an essay, discuss the significance of patterns or graphics found on your favorite article of clothing. What about the graphic originally attracted you to the clothing? What does it suggest about you?
5. Look closely at each of the beadwork designs and consider what the designs have in common. Where do you see symmetry and asymmetry in the designs? Select a shape that you like and use a piece of graph paper to draw patterns with this shape. Create variation through the size and color of shapes. Practice symmetry and asymmetry in your designs. 
6. The graphical style associated with this cape has become an important cultural tradition for the Ndebele people following a history of repression and displacement.  Consider the making of art in relationship to hardship or challenging times? Research another work of art or artistic tradition that was conceived during such circumstances. To get started, you might consider work by Jacob Lawrence, such as The Visitors; artworks created by political prisoners; artworks made during times of war (Mexican Revolution and Posada, World War I and the Dada movement, etc.) or artworks created by street artists.


Reference Books:
Courtney-Clark, Margaret. Ndebele: The Art of an African Tribe. Thames & Hudson, 2002.
Dallas Museum of Art: A Guide to the Collection. Dallas, 1997.
Gillow, John. African Textiles: Color and Creativity Across a Continent. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2009.
Pemberton, John. African Beaded Art: Power and Adornment. Northampton, Mass.: Smith College Museum of Art, 2008.
Trowell, Margaret. African Design. New York: Frederick A. Praeger, Inc., 1960.
Walker, Roslyn A. The Arts of Africa at the Dallas Museum of Art. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2009.
Books for Students:
Clark, Domini. South Africa: The Culture. Crabtree Pub Co, 2008.
Clark, Domini. South Africa: The People. Crabtree Pub Co, 2008.
Koosman, Melissa. The Fall of Apartheid in South Africa (Monumental Milestones: Great Events of Modern Times). Mitchell Lane Pub Inc, 2009.
Merrill, Yvonne Y. Simpson, Mary. Hands-On Africa: Art Activities for All Ages. Kits Publishing, 2000.
Stalcup, Ann. Ndebele Beadwork: African Artistry. Powerkids Press, 1999.
Learn facts about Africa’s geography and ethnic groups on this Web site from the California Academy of Sciences. 
View works of art up close and learn more about African life by visiting this Web site from the Indianapolis Museum of Art.
This timeline gives a history of Africa through its art.
This resource also includes many pieces of Ndebele art.
The collections of the Orlando Museum of Art contain many pieces of Ndebele art.
On this page, you can find a description and explanation of an Ndebele linaga. 




Many works of art seen in museums have a religious or ceremonial significance that may not be readily apparent or easily understood.  Because many of the beliefs, values, and traditions associated with these objects are complex or unfamiliar, teaching about these objects can be challenging.  In a diverse and global world, it is important to maintain a high level of cultural sensitivity in the classroom and to promote cultural literacy.  Presented here are several guidelines for teaching about the beliefs, values, and traditions related to these works of art in a sensitive and respectful manner.


  1. Consider the Museum Setting

Remember that these objects were not originally intended to be displayed in museums and many served utilitarian as well as aesthetic functions.  Some objects were never meant to be preserved and others were only supposed to be seen by a small, elite group within the source culture.  These issues make it all the more important for educators to provide relevant contextual information surrounding these objects.  Older students can consider the ethical implications of the placement of these objects in museums, from the colonial expansions that encouraged their acquisition to the educational benefits of publicly accessible art.


  1. Provide Context and Narrative

When discussing works that carry a religious or ceremonial significance, it is important to consider the original context in which the object would have been used.  Where appropriate, emphasize that many of the ceremonies and religions studied are living traditions that are still practiced today.  Additionally, providing a narrative through contextual storytelling engages students in learning about a culture or religion different from their own in a nonthreatening way. 


Equally important to context is geography.  Emphasize the diversity of the continents and encourage students to remember that Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Americas are made up of many countries and cultures.  A great starting point is to locate where students live on a world map and then locate the country or region from which the artwork comes. 


  1. Use Inclusive Language

Use language that is inclusive, and avoid indicating your own cultural or religious biases.  By remaining neutral, all backgrounds can be respected and no one treated like an outsider.  Avoid setting up a dichotomy of “us” and “them” when discussing these cultures and arbitrary categories such as “western” and “non-western.”  Instead, be specific, and categorize the objects by country or religion.  Specificity steers students away from the trap of oversimplifying diverse continents such as Asia or Africa into homogenous regions that serve as the “other” of the “western” world.


  1. Carefully Select Vocabulary

When discussing works of art with cultural and religious significance, avoid terms that carry a derogatory tone or that have typically been used to disparagingly describe works of art from other cultures.  Avoiding loaded terms will discourage a value hierarchy between cultures and encourage both unbiased accuracy and sensitivity.  Examples include: idol, myth, tribe, artifact, fetish, primitive, non-western, etc.  This list is in no way exhaustive or without exception, and it is important to select words carefully when referring to various cultures or religions. 

Insensitive vocabulary is sometimes compounded by the fact that there may not be English equivalents for the names of religions, belief systems, or peoples from other cultures (i.e. many of the belief systems practiced by various peoples throughout Africa).


  1. Avoid Decontextualizing Activities

Remember that religious and ceremonial objects have a very specific purpose and their own cultural context.  Avoid the inclination to design open-ended, “make your own” exercises where the objects are directly appropriated and removed from their context.  (i.e. make your own Hindu god or African spirit)  Keep in mind how certain activities could be viewed as disrespectful or even blasphemous by peoples from the culture being studied. 


  1. Find Common Connections

Humans throughout time and all over the world share a fundamental unity of experiences that reflect common concerns, instincts, and desires.  We all seek to understand the world and our place within it.  Universal themes and commonalities may be found among diverse peoples.  Invite students to search for meaningful connections between the culture studied and his/her own.  While honoring a common human experience, also encourage students to embrace particular nuances and maintain the integrity of differences of each culture or religion.  Understanding both similarities and differences between cultures allows students to be more compassionate, culturally sensitive, and literate. 


  1. Consider the Study of Cultures

In the last century, scholarship regarding Asian and African cultures and their associated religions and practices has expanded immensely.  Information that was once scarce or obscure is now more accessible than ever and can provide greater understandings about the art and culture of these peoples. European and American art making and record keeping mostly emphasize the individual artist or artistic movement.  This may differ from standards in African and Asian cultures.  Consider the role art plays in various cultures, why makers may or may not be identified, how record keeping varies, and why some cultures emphasize certain aspects of objects and their history over others. 




Breuilly, Elizabeth, and Joanne O’Brien, Martin Palmer, Martin E. Marty. Religions of the World: The Illustrated Guide to Origins, Beliefs, Traditions, and Festivals. New York: Facts on File, Inc., 2005.


Eck, Diana L. On Common Ground: World Religions in America. Columbia University Press, 2006. 


Mbiti, John. African Religion and Philosophy (African Writers), 2nd sub edition. Hinemann, 1992.


Nash, Robert. Teaching Adolescents Religious Literacy in a Post-9/11 World.  Information Age Publishing, 2009.


Prothero, Stephen.  God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World—and Why Their Differences Matter.  Harper One, 2010.


Prothero, Stephen.  Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know-- and Doesn’t.  San Francisco: Harper, 2007.


Ray, Benjamin. African Religions: Symbol, Ritual, and Community, 2nd edition. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.:Prentice-Hall, Inc., 2000.


Said, Edward.  Orientalism. Vintage Books, 1979.


“A Teacher’s Guide to Religion in the Public Schools”