Soft-sculpture Dolls

Ingenious tableaux of Zulu life

On display in the Jo Thorpe Collection are a number of soft-sculpture dolls made by traditional Zulu women from Ndwedwe in KwaZulu-Natal for sale to tourists and art-collectors. These delightful works depict scenes from the cultural life of the women who make them.

Thembi Mchunu is the initiator of this craft, having sold her first doll to Jo Thorpe, Director of Durban's African Art Centre in 1982. Like her mother before her, Thembi would make beadwork for tourists. "One day we came to Jo, the shop was full, we all had bead(work), the trouble was that Jo could not buy all these beads which were one and the same type... It was then that I remembered, 'Oh! when we were young we were playing with dolls, what if I make one?'... I made one and I put clothes on it. I took it to Jo, she loved it, she wanted more dolls and I made them... "1

Sizakele and Celani
Sizakele Nojiyeza and
Celani Nojiyeza

Thembi was joined by Sizakele Nojiyeza (nee Mchunu) and her sisters, Mavis and Thandi, from neighbouring Emaphephethweni. Despite sharing ideas, each sister exhibited her individuality by producing works on favored themes. The concerns of Sizakele and Thandi was with their traditional world of marriage, motherhood and home, while Mavis embraced the wider experience of sport and town-life. Joining this group were Celani, co-wife to Sizakele, and their husband's sister Gabi-Gabi. Two other talented women, Khulumelaphi Hlambisa and Zanele Shangase work alone at their craft but are inspired by the other doll-makers.2

What motivates these women is a combination of creative satisfaction and the desire for financial independence. Their creativity is inspired by recalling the joys of childhood games, traditional umbondo (bridal gift-giving), beer-brewing and dance competitions for dolls. The makers trace their present competitiveness to produce the best doll to these early games.

"We even fought for these dolls! We made them dance in competition and one child's doll would win... It is like that again!... if our brothers were back from herding we would call them to witness... so as to be certain who won... the one who does not tire of making the doll jump (dance) is the one who wins... the Nojiyeza boys could make the dolls dance for a long time!3"

JT324 - Celani Nojiyeza,
"Bride and attendant"

The most basic doll type is the costume-doll, often dressed to display the coveted status of a Makoti (bride), as in Bride and attendant by Celani Nojiyeza.4 This doll's cape is a recycled piece of traditional beadwork, a shoulder-band (amadavathi) typical of the local style of beading, worn to respect (ukuhlonipha) the husband, his family and ancestral-spirits. The beautifying of dress with beads (ihlobisa) is a part of ukuhlonipha, "...yes, what one is doing here (in beading) is beautifying but one is also respecting."5 By implication, the beading of these dolls is done to honour both the work and the audience.

Some dolls are self-portraits, as for example, Wedding gifts which shows a bride carrying gifts (umbondo) to her husband's home.6 This doll dates from the time when the maker, Sizakele Nojiyeza was herself finally married: she arrived at the African Art Centre in full bridal regalia and the staff toasted her good fortune. The cloth-wrapped frame supporting the figure refers to the arch under which the bride is posed in a photographic studio in town, as a record of the occasion.7

The choice of multicoloured beads mixed with black beads set against black cloth is a convention of Ndwedwe regional dress from 1980-90.8 So instinctive is this cultural taste that doll-makers explained only after much questioning, " is according to the colour (style) of our area, all other colours look bright if they are against black... It is a skill of mixing to actually come (up) with a beautiful thing. The black colour is used to divide colours that should not come together... like yellow and white... but... Europeans think it is beautiful like that!"9


Extract from exhibition lecture for International School of Training, Arts and Culture course, Cape Town. Durban visit, 1999


  1. Thembi Mchunu's childhood doll was a mielie-cob dressed in rags with a cardboard skirt impregnated with black battery acid and a skein of grass for hair. Jo Thrope had rejected this doll type because of insect attack which meant she had to make a doll in cloth to which she added wooden feet to enable it to stand upright. Mthethwa, D. and Winters, Y. 1999 Interview with doll-maker Thembi Mchunu, Durban
  2. Eleanor Preston-Whyte has written biographies on the doll-makers. Preston-Whyte, E. 1991 Zulu bead sculptors UCLA: African Arts Journal Vol.XXVI January
  3. Mthethwa, D. and Winters, Y. 1999 Interview with doll-maker Khulumelaphi Hlambisa, Durban
  4. JT324
  5. Mthethwa, D. and Winters, Y. 1999 Interview with doll-maker Celani Nojiyeza, Durban
  6. JT304
  7. Winters, Y. 1984 Personal communication Jo Thorpe Durban
  8. The Campbell Collections have a comprehensive collection of traditional costume from this area, Mashu Museum MM 4878-5012
  9. Mthethwa, D. and Winters, Y. 1999 Interview with doll-maker Celani Nojiyeza, Durban