An item of dress or a work of art?

Museums and galleries usually view ethnic beadwork in one of two ways: the anthropological perspective reveals the item's function and the wearer's cultural status and values, while the aesthetic evaluation of the piece appraises quality of workmanship, intricacies of technique and artistry of colour and pattern choice. Recent approaches tend to combine both orientations and perhaps give the closest approximation to the maker's intent and relative success in communicating it.

Such an integrative approach can be applied to MaMgwamanda Mdluli's beaded cape (utshodo) thereby kindling an appreciation of her as artist, individual and traditionalist Zulu woman. MaMgwamanda is the third wife of Inkosi (Chief) Mdluli from Emkhambathini in the Ndwedwe district of KwaZulu-Natal. She made the cape for her wedding; the style is typical of contemporary beadwork in the area and known locally as "Umkhambathi", indicating the origins of the wearer, its multiple colours referring to the fertility of both area and woman.

MaMgwamanda has worked into the motifs and colours of the upper section of her cape the following communication or statement about herself: The central pink star-shape declares "ngiyikhanyezi yomuzi"(I am the star of the home). The two tree-shapes are to be read as one, "ngiyisihlahla esiluhlazana"(I am a green tree) and "ngiyindoni yamanzi"(I am the fruit of the umdoni tree).1

MM4889 - Mdluli's wedding cape - upper section

The blue cross indicates "ungenzele isiphambano solwandle"(he (husband) is making the cross of the sea), while the yellow cross is there merely to balance the design, a process described as "ngigcwalisela ukuhlobisa"(I am adding (a motif/ pattern or colour) for decoration). The series of square-edged triangles are "ucezu lwenyanga"(half-moons).2 The other isolated motifs and the base pattern were not 'read' and are to be taken in their form as regional identifiers.

For the interpretation of the lower section of her cape, the maker declared that the alphabetical patterning is meant to represent writing, "Ohe zenda zangishiya ezangakithi"(Oh poor me, all the girls of my age went to get married and left me (behind)). MaMgwamanda is illiterate and uses the individual alphabetical letters to stand for whole words.3

MM4889 - Mdluli's wedding cape - lower section

The deeper meaning of these motif communications reflects a declaration of MaMgwamanda's life-story; in the upper cape section she says that she has married late in life (as indicated by the half-moons), having been jilted by a former lover (the pink colour used in the star indicating that she is no longer a virgin); but she has married an old man (the symbol for joining in legal union being a cross which in this case is blue, "because he still has the passions of the ever pounding sea" - presumably he is still sexually active).4 Finally she refers to herself as a dark complexioned beauty who is still fertile (as indicated by the green and mauve tree-shapes). It is a Zulu convention to describe a dark complexioned girl as "dark but lovely as a ripe fruit of the umdoni tree," and the two balanced tree-shapes are to be understood as a single statement.5 The context of the lower section's message lies in the fact that while her age-mates were courted and married, MaMgwamanda grew older waiting for a proposal of marriage. This lower section dates from her pre-engagement days. This may also give an idea as to why the two sections are crafted in disparate styles, the upper one depending upon motifs and colours and the lower one consisting of 'writing'.

Whatever the dating of the two sections, together they serve to complete MaMgwamanda's life-story. The upper section is particularly celebratory at her having found a husband and being in the process of getting married, while the lower section invites an insight into her vulnerability and hurt at the heavy hand of fate which had delayed this process. Couched in the language of poetic simile the hidden reference is to fecundity, sexual powers and the rhythm of life, all important to a Zulu woman who measures her worth against her capacity to bear children: the basis of her story was the threat that she may never have found a husband which could only have been a travesty of her role as female within a traditionalist milieu.

In summary, these capes are both ceremonial and celebratory, serving to cover the bride as a sign of respect for her in-laws, while the colours/motifs communicate the bride's story for public witness. Although the style, technique, bead size, colours/motifs and associated ideas are shared by the community, each woman expresses her individuality in her choice of these elements. The concurrence found in the upper section between decisive communication and differentiated balanced image makes MaMgwamanda's cape a singularly successful work of art. The lower section's message, encoded in single letters standing for words, shows a period in the history of beadwork when symbolism and motif were invented, developed and retained in the memory of persons in a traditionally oral society.


Extract from exhibition catalogue "Jabulisa 2000 : The art of KwaZulu-Natal" Pietermaritzburg: Tatham Art Gallery and Durban Art Galley, 2000



  1. 'Waterboom' or Umdoni are common names for the syzygium cordatum tree. It is found near water and bears edible berries. 1996 A Dictionary of South African English Oxford University Press
  2. Dube I. N. 1998 Interview with MaMgwamanda Mdluli Emkhambathini.
  3. Ibid. Thus 'E hh E' means 'Ehe! (Oh poor me ..)', 'Z' stands for 'zenda (getting married)', 'K T H' stands for 'ezanga Kithi (girls of my village)'. The function of the double '8' 'H' 'P' and other shapes on the end was said to be "to complete the pattern", and thus, "it is not important for them to be interpreted." This Zulu is said to be "old fashioned and regional, not that used in urban areas." Winters, Y. 2000 Personal communication Lindi Mthembu Durban.
  4. In Afrikaans there is a saying, "Hy is oud maar nie koud nie (He may be old but he is not cold (yet)", this innuendo is about the closest in meaning to that expressed in MaMgwamanda's symbolism. Y. Winters 1998 Personal communication Zandile Gumede(daughter-in-law to MaMgwamanda) Durban
  5. When a Zulu girl is of dark complexion she will be described as "umyama kodwa muhle" (she is dark but beautiful) and as "undoni yamanzi" (she is a (dark ripe) fruit of the umdoni tree). This is a single image, beauty and fertility being one and the same. A light complexioned Zulu beauty has another description. Winters, Y. 1999 Personal communication Dingani Mthethwa Durban