Ndebele matriarch is in a class of her own

Master beadwork maker, painter and remarkable cultural entrepreneur and educator Sophie Msoziswa Mahlangu is a most deserving Innibos National Craft Awards 2020 winner.

The beaded bicycles she entered into the awards wowed the judges and left little room for debate when it came to choosing the winner of the Beading Category.

Sophie lives with her husband, son, daughter-in-law and her grandchildren in the village of Gamorwa in Mpumalanga, where she celebrates the cultural Ndebele aesthetic with traditional and contemporary products. 

From a shop at her home, Sophie’s co-op, Nomhlekhabo Craft Africa, produces and sells beadwork for local ceremonial use and for the visiting tourist trade. As a custodian of Nzunza Ndebele heritage, she is also a professional performing artist: she sings and dances traditional songs at major celebrations and cultural festivals with her performing group uNosinki Nabomma Bemvelo. Her musical career has led to the production of three albums to date: Inhlonipho in 2010, Ma-Africa in 2013 and Kuhle Kuyakarisa in 2014.

Sophie Mahlangu, who won the Beading Category of the 2020 Innibos National Craft Awards, is a master beadwork maker, painter and remarkable cultural entrepreneur and educator. She is also a key educator in the traditional Ndebele arts. Sophie and long-time friends Dr Esther Mahlangu and Esther Mnguni teach painting and beadwork to teachers and learners through non-profit company Africa meets Africa’s ongoing Ndebele Women designing Identityproject. Africa meets Africa integrates traditional arts and history with mathematics learning in rural schools throughout South Africa, in partnership with district education departments. Pictured is Sophie (left) and Esther Mnguni, imparting decades of knowledge to local children through the Africa meets Africa project. Photo: Helene Smuts, Africa meets Africa NPC (www.africameetsafrica.co.za)

Sophie is also a key educator in the traditional Ndebele arts. She and long-time friends Dr Esther Mahlangu and Esther Mnguni teach painting and beadwork to teachers and learners through non-profit company Africa meets Africa’s ongoing Ndebele Women designing Identityproject. Africa meets Africa integrates traditional arts and history with mathematics learning in rural schools throughout South Africa, in partnership with district education departments.

“The project started 20 years ago, with the aim of documenting rural indigenous arts and the related local knowledge systems. A natural evolution was the development of an arts skills-based, subject-integrated learning methodology for the classroom that makes subjects like maths accessible and meaningful,” says Helene Smuts, the founding director of Africa meets Africa.

Helene and Sophie have been friends for a decade now, through their shared educational work. “She really is a master beadwork maker and entrenched in the Ndebele heritage,” says Helene.

Sophie learnt her beadwork skills at her mother’s knee. “My mother was a very good beadwork maker,” relates Sophie, now the Ndebele master of the art herself. “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.”

After gaining experience and confidence, Sophie started making adornments and traditional ceremonial attire on her own. 

Sophie Mahlangu’s intricately beaded bicycles that won the Beading Category of the Innibos National Craft Awards in 2020. Photo: Helene Smuts, Africa meets Africa NPC, (www.africameetsafrica.co.za).

With the Nkangala Department of Culture, Sport and Recreation, she has exhibited at the Durban Design Indaba, twice at the Innibos National Craft Awards in Nelspruit and in other national centres.

She has travelled to Spain and Italy with Dr Esther Mahlangu, where they completed commissions for mural paintings. Sophie has also created mural paintings at local venues such as KwaMhlanga Police Station and at Kagiso Water Park.  

For more information on Africa meets Africa, visit their website at www.africameetsafrica.co.za

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