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Sophie Mahlangu's bead work wows judges

Londiwe Dlomo Journalist
Sophie Mahlangu wearing her Ndebele mask.
Sophie Mahlangu wearing her Ndebele mask.
Image: Helene Smuts

Beadwork has been currency and language on the African continent for eons. From expressing love to one's status symbol, to using them as feminine enhancements, in the form of waist beads, it appears you cannot tell Africa's story without mentioning beads.

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 popularised Southern African beadwork. With their distinctive geometric designs and artisans who have garnered the world's attention, such as Sophie Msoziswa Mahlangu.

Speaking to Mam' Mahlangu over the phone is a delight. She's audibly passionate about her work and though there are moments where we miss each other due to the language barrier, the love for her work is easily understood.

Mahlangu is a musician, master bead worker and the winner of the Innibos National Craft Awards 2020 in the Beading Category.

For the competition, Mahlangu entered a pair of beaded bicycles which won over the judges. The inspiration for this art, Mahlangu said, was to be original. She 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 says.

Mahlangu is based in the village of Gamorwa in Mpumalanga. She lives with her husband, son, daughter-in-law and her grandchildren.

She sells her beaded artworks in her co-op Nomhlekhabo Craft Africa. Her clientele consists of locals who purchase bead works for local ceremonial use and visiting tourists.

Mahlangu was pleasantly surprised by her win. She says 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 learnt the bead working craft from her mother. Mahlangu says she stayed close to her mother who would make ceremonial outfits in the night due to friendly competition with her peers.

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 says.

"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," she has said in a statement.

We spoke about this as well and she says that being with her mom and learning from watching her, stood her in good stead as she was able to make her own outfits after her initiation ceremony.

Mahlangu also says she got her entrepreneurial spirit from her mother, who sold fresh produce and special clothing that was worn by young women when they came back from their initiation.

Growing up with this "do it for yourself" attitude saw Mahlangu translate it to other women around her when she got married.

She also encouraged other young wives and advocated that they should have a craft, because only their husbands worked.

The intricately beaded bicycles that won the Beading Category of the Innibos National Craft Awards.
The intricately beaded bicycles that won the Beading Category of the Innibos National Craft Awards.
Image: Helene Smuts

"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," she says.

For those who had skills in farming, she encouraged them to farm and sell produce. And said that if they each had different skills, they could all refer clients to each other.

Mahlangu is an 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 nonprofit company Africa meets Africa's ongoing Ndebele Women designing Identity project.

Mahlangu says she teaches her kids to be original and offers constructive criticism to them as well.

Sophie Mahlangu, left, and Esther Mnguni impart decades of knowledge to local children through the Africa meets Africa project.
Sophie Mahlangu, left, and Esther Mnguni impart decades of knowledge to local children through the Africa meets Africa project.
Image: Helene Smuts

"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 says.

With the Nkangala department of culture, sport & recreation, she has exhibited at the Durban Design Indaba, twice at the Innibos National Craft Awards in Mbombela and in other national centres.

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

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