Allina Ndebele (1939 - )
The Order of Ikhamanga in
Profile of Allina Ndebele
Allina Ndebele was born on 10 December 1939 at Ekuhlengeni Mission, in the northern part of what is now KwaZulu-Natal Province. She was one of six children raised almost single-handedly by her mother because the migrant labour system had forced her husband to find work in Johannesburg.
Ndebele managed to obtain a junior certificate, but financial and legal constraints did not allow her further education. In 1962 she applied to Ceza Hospital for nursing training. While waiting to be accepted, she worked as an interpreter for occupational therapists, a Swedish couple named Pedar and Ulla Gowenius, who taught spinning, weaving, drawing and sewing. They awakened and nurtured Ndebele's latent talent and creative spirit.
She was the first to enrol when the Evangelical Lutheran Church Art and Craft Centre was established at Rorke's Drift in 1963, and soon won a scholarship to the Dals Langed Art School in Sweden to train as a teacher of weaving.
Back at Rorke's Drift, she spent 12 years devoting her life to teaching and guiding both students and established weavers. But her work left her no time to fulfil her own creative needs, and in 1977 she returned to her place of birth near the Black Mfolosi River. Unable to obtain a site for a studio, she constructed a small workshop in her father's kraal, installed two second-hand looms which had been her farewell present from Rorke's Drift and embarked on her life's work.
She started weaving classes for local women and, in the evenings, worked on her own tapestries. Her first inspiration came from the wonderful Zulu folk-tales she had heard from her grandmother as a child, the vivid pictures in her mind being transferred directly to the tapestry without any preliminary drawings. It was an arduous beginning. Dyeing the wool required a walk of almost two kilometres to the river, and the work on her tapestries had to be done by the light of candles or paraffin lamps because there was no electricity.
Recognition and reward did not come easily, but in 1985 she established herself as a recognised independent artist with an exhibition at the Pretoria Art Museum which was later viewed at several other art galleries and museums and in 1987 at Sweden’s Orebro Lans Museum. Since then she has exhibited as far afield as Washington DC and the Netherlands, and has received several awards.
Today Allina Ndebele's tapestries with their depictions of African myths and legends as well as Bible stories can be seen in a number of major art galleries and collections. Each piece represents not just an irreplaceable part of the broader South African heritage, but a small monument to the indomitable spirit of an artist who overcame so many obstacles to bring her art to her country and to the world.