When forming the women artists' community Ubuhle in 1999, Ntombephi “Induna” Ntobela and Bev Gibson shared a singular vision: to revive the lost traditions of bead-making to the local women of the KwaZulu-Natal province of South Africa and enable them to use their restored skills as a means to sustain their livelihoods.
For its debut UK exhibition at 50 Golborne Gallery, Ubhule displays a collection of works around a common theme: water. Indeed, water is a daily preoccupation in a region where it’s a precious resource. Figuratively, it’s also a powerful motif connected to femininity in both Xhosa and Zulu cultures. It is believed, for instance, that a woman healer, called a sangoma, must devote herself in bodies of water to harness her spiritual powers.
Ubuhle now centres on four artists – Ntombephi “Induna” Ntobela, Thando Ntobela, Zandile Ntobela and Zondlile Zondo – whose mastery of beading is on display: personal tableaux compositions called ndwangos recognized as works of art in their own right. The ndwangos are made of the black cloth reminiscent of the traditional Xhosa headscarves and skirts. Coloured Czech glass beads are meticulously hand-sewn into the material, creating intricate patterns and complex textures. The cloth is then stretched like a canvas for display.
The 15 panels that compose ‘Dreams Are Like Water’ express themes of feminine power and belief systems. Traditionally, the act of beading is a way for women to reach a divine state. Like streams of consciousness, allusions to water are woven in as subjects, and when on display, light subtly reflects off the surface of the glass beadwork giving the tableaux a sense of fluidity. For the viewer, the beaded objects express the artist’s spiritual power.
Each artist is recognized by her unique style and inspiration. Artist and Ubuhle co-founder Ntombephi “Induna” Ntobela invokes water as a personal reference to her mother, a sangoma who spent six months in the sea to complete her training as a healer. Thando Ntobela uses colour as a way to represent the people, emotions and experiences that have touched her life. Zandile Ntobela’s pattern of the flowering sakura, or Japanese cherry blossom, is a signature part of her work. Zondlile Zondo uses vibrant colours and bold patterns to reflect her Zulu culture.
The Ubuhle works have exhibited at international institutions including the Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum in Washington D.C., the Modern Museum of Art and Design in New York and the Textile Museum of Canada in Toronto.
Following ‘Dreams Like Water’, the collective will internationally tour its exhibition ‘Ubuhle Women: Beadwork and the Art of Independence’ beginning at the Flint Institute of Arts in Flint, Michigan from 21 January to 15 April 2018 followed by the Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk, Virginia from 18 October 2018 to 24 February 2019.