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AMANDEBELE (article first published : 2005-12-4)

The image which features on the dustcover of amaNdelebe, Peter Magubane’s latest photographic essay, is so striking it immediately demands one’s interest. It is not the image of horror or pain or despair that one has become so accustomed to in South Africa but one of celebration. Yet it is an image, and the gaze on the female subject’s face is one that indicates that there is much story behind and beyond the image.

Beauty, regality, strength, endurance, history.

The reader’s attention is caught.

My first encounter with Peter Magubane’s work was some 20 years ago, and again some years later, when he published photographic essays on Soweto. These works demonstrated the raw life and harsh reality of that hard environment. But not everything was pain and despair; there was a counter-balance which demonstrated the resilience of human endurance to rise above the obstacles presented by life.

So, too, in amaNdelebe has Magubane captured the capability of groups to adapt to new environments and to master those environments rather than be dictated to by them. Perhaps this book, recording the adaptability and survival of the Ndebele, is a reflection of Magubane’s own career, one which has been very much determined by the events of his native South Africa.

The history of the Ndebele is one of being pushed from one area to another, first by Mzilikazi and later by the Boer farmers. Eventually, once land was purchased, the Ndebele had a place that could be called their own only to have their culture assaulted by the pressures of the modern world of the 20th century. As people left to find work in the cities - first the menfolk and much later, women - traditional dress and ways of life were challenged by city life and much of the culture began to be eroded.

The Ndebele have made a conscious decision and effort to retain and revive their culture and this is what is captured in the photographs of Magubane. As it is a living culture it has adapted and assimilated aspects of life in the late 20th and early 21st centuries into the culture thus preserving it and ensuring its continued survival. Hence, for example, in dress, sunglasses and other modern implements such as large safety-pins have been incorporated in the dress. Neck rings which once were a permanent part of a woman’s attire can now be removed and worn only for special occasions. Few married women today opt for the “old way”.

In order to revive their culture and preserve their identity, there has been a revival of initiation practices and the promotion of their art forms most notably in beadwork and architecture. This is seen in the more common geometric designs and also the more rare floral designs.

Magubane takes the reader inside the rituals and the everyday life of the Ndebele providing us with a vivid account of this unique culture and at the same time preserving for the Ndebele a record of their culture thus ensuring that it not lost to the ravages and pressures of modern society.

Magubane’s images are complemented by text by Sandra Klopper. She provides succinct background information and commentary having observed the Ndebele. Klopper’s text enhances the photography without overshadowing it.

amaNdebele retails at R299.95 and would be a fine addition to any person’s library. While appearing in coffee table book form, it provides the reader with a vivid yet sensitive insight into the wealth of Ndebele culture. The book has 152 pages of colour photographs plus text and comes with a plastic laminated hard cover and dust jacket. It is published by Sunbird Publishing in portrait format: 245mm x 320mm. ISBN: 1 919 93806 0 Bar-code: 9781919938066 - Peter Taylor




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