Nguni people use beadwork as a way to communicate with each other, from its colours to the shapes and patterns that are created, Zulu beadworks are expressive, reflective and societal. The early forms of these usually were bone, shells and seeds to the now colourful, often tightly woven, plastic beads that have entranced the world.
The Ndebele people are one of the groups that have also popularized Southern African beadwork because of their distinctive geometric designs and artisans who have garnered the world’s attention. South African Musician, Sophie Msoziswa Mahlangu won the Innibos National Craft Awards 2020 in the Beading Category.
Mahlangu had entered the awards before, but did not win.”This time I thought about what I could do that I hadn’t done before. Not giving up after I lost worked for me. It shows that you should never give up and to also motivate yourself,” she said.
she was informed by Helene Smuts, the founding director of Africa meets Africa, over the phone about her success. “I didn’t expect to win, but it goes to show that if you don’t give up, you will finally succeed,” she said.
Through Nkangala Department of Culture, Sport & Recreation, Mahlangu has exhibited at the Durban Design Indaba, twice at the Innibos National Craft Awards in Mbombela and in other national centres. She created mural paintings for local venues such as KwaMhlanga police station and at Kagiso Water Park.
For the competition, Mahlangu entered a pair of beaded bicycles which won over the judges. She said the inspiration for this art was to be original. She learnt the bead working craft from her mother. “It was common in those days to work by candlelight in secret so that you could “show up” your peers with exquisite beadworks on various outfits. My mother was a very good beadwork maker,” she said.
“As a child, I kept close to her, watching as she organised her needle and thread to start making a piece. I would play around with some loose beads right next to her so that I could look deeply on the way she worked,” said Mahlangu.
The creative bead worker is based in the village of Gamorwa in Mpumalanga and sells her beaded artworks in her co-op Nomhlekhabo Craft Africa. Her clientele consists of locals who purchase beadworks for local ceremonial use and visiting tourists. Mahlangu also encouraged other young wives and advocated that they should have a craft because only their husbands worked. “I told them, we can live with the work of our hands, let us teach each other how to do the work of our hands,” said Mahlangu.
She is also an educator in the traditional Ndebele arts. She and long-time friends, Dr Esther Mahlangu teach painting and beadwork to teachers and learners through nonprofit company Africa meets Africa’s ongoing Ndebele Women designing Identity project. Together they have travelled to Spain and Italy, where they completed commissions for mural paintings.
Mahlangu said she teaches her kids to be original and offers constructive criticism to them as well. “For those who do exceptional work, they get rewarded with first place, second place positions so that they don’t give up. And for those who didn’t do so well, I offer them advice on where they could have done better so that they also don’t give up. If you encourage them, they won’t give up,” she said.