Water and space: Unraveling meaning in the weavings of Allina Ndebele

Philippa Hobbs, Nessa Leibhammer

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Citation (Scopus)


For more than three decades, artist-weaver Allina Ndebele has drawn on traditional Zulu symbolism and thought systems as inspiration for her work. She began her career as a trainee nurse in a Swedish mission environment at Ceza, KwaZulu-Natal, in the early 1960s, during an era when restrictions on traditional African beliefs and practices were being challenged by some enlightened missionaries. Ndebele then learned weaving from Ulla Gowenius, a Swedish art school graduate. She was encouraged by Ulla's husband, Peder Gowenius, to draw on African and personal themes, in a narrative, ‘free weaving’ style in the few such weavings she made at this early stage of her career. Later, when starting out on her own as a professional artist working independently from the weaving workshop at the Evangelical Lutheran Church Art and Craft Centre, Rorke's Drift—which she had helped the Goweniuses establish in 1963—Ndebele experienced a crisis of uncertainty in her choice of subject matter. When she subsequently gave herself licence to draw on the traditional stories her grandmother used to tell during her childhood the dilemma was resolved, albeit that the themes were considered transgressive in the mission environment in which her family lived. These accounts became an ongoing source of inspiration for Ndebele's intuitive ‘free weaving’ works for some thirty years. This essay explores some of the layers of reference and interpretation in two of the concepts that appear repeatedly in Ndebele's iconography: ‘living water’ and the ‘ordered homestead’. In the form of rain that falls from heaven, runs in streams, fills rivers and collects in pools, ‘living water’ emanates from the munificence of the great god in the sky, uMvelinqangi, fertilising the earth and making all forms of life possible. A further sense of prosperity is denoted by the ordered Zulu homestead, with its dwellings arranged around the central cattle kraal. These animals are markers of economic wellbeing and serve as spiritual links with the ancestors. Conversely, the absence of these fundamental resources, and the consequences thereof, are played out in this work.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)6-21
Number of pages16
JournalDe Arte
Issue number83
Publication statusPublished - 2011

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Cultural Studies


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