VMFA’s Youngest Visitors Play House While Learning about South African Culture

A group visiting the museum took a few minutes to check out the Ndebele houses.

A group visiting the museum took a few minutes to check out the Ndebele houses.

It started with a great idea from a VMFA educator. The African Art curator then vetted the idea, suggesting authentic Ndebele patterns. The VMFA Shop created blueprints and built three tiny houses. Interns and staff drew the Ndebele designs on the houses. Kids at the Celebrate African and African American Art Family Day painted the designs with bright strokes of color.

Now families and summer camp groups visiting the museum are enjoying the fruits of this VMFA team effort: three miniature versions of Ndebele houses nestled in the trees in the Robins Sculpture Garden.

“The houses were meant to extend the impact of Family Day and give our initiative life past the day of the event,” says Assistant Youth and Family Programs Educator, Merenda Woodward, who was instrumental in this project. Each child who plays in the houses is asked to add a piece of raffia to the roof line to not only create a thatched-like roof on the house but also provide the museum with a way of measuring the project’s impact. Since June 20, approximately 650 children have visited the small houses.

The story behind the brightly colored houses is one of South African pride. Ndebele women have always proudly decorated the exteriors of their homes. Originally the patterns they used echoed those found in their beautifully beaded vestments and jewelry, and the paints, made from natural substances, were more muted in color. With the advent of commercial pigments, this new, more colorful palette evolved. This tradition, passed down from one generation of Ndebele women to the next, continues to this day and can be seen in the murals by South African artist Esther Mahlangu at the entrance to the African Art Galleries.

The cluster of Ndebele houses will remain in the Sculpture Garden through the summer.