Reuben Ndwandwe (March 24, 1943 - June 15,2007)
by Vivienne Garside
On June 15, 2007, the world of indigenous art lost one of its greatest characters and most distinguished artists, master weaver Reuben Ndwandwe of Hlabisa. Ndwandwe had done a little basket weaving at primary school, so when he was hospitalised with tuberculosis at the age of 18, it was to this craft that he returned and in which he realised his great gift. His work was characterised by absolute attention to detail, an immaculate finish saw the inside of the basket as flawless as its exterior. His idiosyncratic designs that sprang from the classic Zulu shield and the cross stitch and bar edging became his trademark.
A devout Shembe, Ndwandwe lived in the rural area of Empembeni near Hlabisa, in a simple style that belied his international reputation. Visitors would be welcomed with his usual broad smile and a cry of 'Ah, my spirits told me a friend would come today!' He loved to teach his craft and was delighted last year to be able to hold a master class for 11 weavers of his area, a project funded by the KZN Museum Service through Vukani Museum. He was larger than life, and told gleeful stories of his four marriages and 15 children. His widow, Zanele, is pregnant with his 16th child.
At the 'One of a Kind' exhibition held in Johannesburg recently, Ndwandwe was one of only three people awarded the title of Master Craftsman. Sadly, he never knew.
The final irony was that Ndwandwe always refused to attend Hlabisa Hospital, saying that he would die there. On the last day of his life, suffering terribly from renewed tuberculosis, his family took him there in desperation and it was there, as he predicted, that he passed away.
Hamba kahle, great artist and very dear friend.
Vivienne Garside is curator of the Vukani Zulu Cultural Museum