Objects of Affection: African Ndebele Dolls

4 March 2015

She’s been mentioned a handful of times on Ocean Violet (read: here, here and here.) But never have I boldly declared the truth that my Grandmother is my favorite person on this earth. The older I get the more I notice the myriad of ways she’s shaped who I am. My grandmother is a voracious reader, plays the piano by ear, collects art, has written two books, co-authored a few others and gives advice, like “if you want to make some enemies, throw a wedding.

This is just one of many stories where her collecting and travel were imparted on me.

My Grandmother, Patricia Friedberg, was born and raised in London. At nineteen she married a South African doctor (enter: my Grandfather) and, immediately following the wedding, left everything she knew for a bush town in Rhodesia now Zimbabwe. It was here she became a journalist and writer of documentaries for Rhodesian Newspapers and Television.

As I mentioned, my Grandmother is an avid art collector and many of her pieces were collected from her travels. I vividly recall her set of African Ndebele dolls proudly displayed on mantles around the house.  I was never the type to play with dolls and, although my Grandmother’s dolls weren’t exactly the type a child could play with, I marveled at their intricate beadwork, colorful garb and braided hair. It was the closest to a Barbie my mother would ever see me. I was given my first Ndebele doll in 1994 after my mother returned from a wedding in South Africa.  My Nebele doll has traveled with me ever since and today sits proudly on my fireplace mantle along with three other Ndebele dolls our dear friends brought back for me while on honeymoon.

The story goes that Ndebele dolls, often called “fertility dolls,” are made by the Ndebele people in Southern Africa. They are typically made for the bride by the maternal grandmother and ritually presented to her upon return from her wedding ceremony. Their shape and costume vary according to region and custom.  You can even find a young man placing a Ndebele doll outside a young woman’s hut, indicating his intention to propose marriage to her (far less than a diamond!)

I’ve noticed a few of these dolls on my favorite interior design blogs recently, so I thought I’d share their rich history and my grandmother’s, once again, lasting impact.

the mantle of one of my favorite interior designers: Justina Blakeney of the Jungalow.

The mantle of one of my favorite interior designers: Justina Blakeney of the Jungalow.

The custom says that a woman should keep her doll until her third child is born. She must then pass it on to one of her daughters... or, in the absence of a daughter, she must destroy it. I love the simplicity of these ceremonial dolls in black and white from Mahatsar.a

Custom states that a woman should keep her doll until her third child is born. She must then pass it on to one of her daughters… or, in the absence of a daughter, she must destroy it. I love the simplicity of these ceremonial dolls in black and white from Mahatsara.

white modern shelves + pops of color = perfect.

white modern shelves + pops of color = perfect.

Molly Sims says "ah-mazing" at least 15 times in this article, including once to describe her luck with her fertility doll.

Molly Sims says “ah-mazing” at least 15 times in this article, including once to describe her luck with her fertility doll found during a trip to Cape Town, South Africa.

This very rare  Sotho fertility doll will set you back $8K. Found on 1stdibs from Jacaranda. (Aside: Jacaranda trees are by far the most beautiful trees.)

This very rare Sotho fertility doll will set you back $8K. Found on 1stdibs from Jacaranda.

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another shot from one of Justina Blakeney’s interiors.

These four beauties belong to me. The little lady in the front would be my first Ndebele given to me by my mother, but I have a feeling she won't be my last.

These four beauties belong to me. The little lady in the front would be my first Ndebele given to me by my mother, but I have a feeling she won’t be my last.

Although my Ndebele doll did not come with the traditional lore,  I love the fact that my mother passed down one to me after being inspired by my Grandmother’s own dolls. I imagine when I have a daughter I, too, can pass along my doll to her, continuing our family tradition.

 

 

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