Vha Venda Culture

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VhaVenda Culture, a link to South African Roots is an inspirational collection of artworks carefully selected by the Alliance Française to describe and portray through various mediums the Vha Venda culture. Not just a collection of artifacts, this exhibition aims to combine accounts of the music, dance initiation ceremonies and other rituals of the Vha Venda people. The inclusion of water and beer-pots, drinking spoons and sifting baskets, musical instruments, paintings in the western tradition with finely carved sculptural works supports a need to acknowledge the inclusive nature of African art which has no concept of the decisive notion of separating art and craft as perceived in western tradition. After all, vessels for drinking water and beer and baskets for maize meal sifting are as carefully made when used for special ceremonies. Diverse Venda artist, Avhashoni Maingaiye confirms that the vhaVenda word Vutsila, meaning art is inclusive of all artforms, including musical instruments and functional objects. Since the vessels are often produced by women and carving a predominatly male tradition, though the work of Evineth Siaga Lowani : Khomba is in wood, the selection is also gender inclusive, and the dance forms of tshikona (male) and tshigombela (female) reflected in some of the art works. Having lived in the Limpopo Province, teaching art, I was fortunate enough to collaborate with most of the artists showcased here, and made a study of their lives and work. I was particularly pleased to see that the artworks are shown alongside biographical accounts of the artists and their environment. This was an issue close to my heart when exhibiting with several of the artists in the past. Often galleries present pristine exhibitions which rarely give much insight into the artists’ lives and culture, domestic environment and working space. Through the skillful images of photographer Hugues Foulquier, there is ample documentation to create a window into the world of the Vha Venda people, in support of the artworks themselves. Foulquier has taken his visual studies further by exploring the myths, secret cultural practices of what he believes to be an endangered culture. In such a brief introduction, it is not possible to refer to all the artworks represented here. Although they are bound by the common threads of being products of the Vha Venda and about the Vha Venda culture, these works are diverse and contrast traditional conventional objects and materials with modern western techniques and concepts. The intricately carved Malombo of Azwhimpeleli Magoro, a fine figurative rendition in leadwood of a woman playing a drum gives life and movement to the theme. Heindrick Nekhofe, mentor to Azwhi and so many of the other woodcanvers, often portrays traditional themes in abstract form, having studied western art and in particular preoccupied by Cubism. Here he captures the spirit of the Tshikona with an elegant elongated form. Meshak Raplalalani’s Tshigombela Dancer and Muphaso contrast with these sculptures in their weighty though feminine forms reflecting a monumentality found in his larger works. Churchill Madzivhandila shows a surprising shift from his figurative works in his abstract carving of the initiation ceremony, whilst his Domba dance carries the curving forms of the python from where the dance form is derived. Painting, not traditionally a Venda artform, skillfully reflects the Domba and Tshikona dance forms in the acrylic and oil paintings of Rendani Mudau and Takalani Ligege. Drums are the essential symbol of Venda culture, the most sacred historically is the ngomalungundu, equal only to the sacred Lake Fundudzi from whence, according to myth the vha Venda people are born. The Ngoma drum of Phineas Masuvhelele, although on a smaller scale than the usual ceremonial variety is refreshing in its simplicity. Its less sacred partner the murumba drum is played in everyday events, is a practical and portable version. The mbila of K.J. Radzilani looks well-played, almost ancient with its beaten metal keys and roughly hewn wooden base.One could imagine all of these instruments frequently carried around to be played at an array of events. The exhibition commendably captures the spirit of the Vha Venda traditions which are still very much alive. In an era where traditional african culture is being spurned by the young, I have every belief that it remains strong in the hearts of the old and young in this myth-drenched land.

Kathy Coates May 2005
Artist, art educator and curator

The VhaVenda

The Vhavenda live in the northern part of Limpopo Province of South Africa ; in the mountain range of the Soutpansberg, surrounded by Botswana on the west, Zimbabwe on the north and Mozambique and Kruger National Park on the east.

The story of their origins is not clear and the Venda people themselves only were united when the white settlers arrived in Soutpansberg. Anyway it is believed they originally came from the Congo area (today there is still a tribe speaking a language similar to tshivenda in the Congo valley) moved to present day Zimbabwe, and there a split occurred with the original group (vhaKaranga/VaKalanga) and a part of the group followed the mythic chief Thohoyandou and crossed the Limpopo river in the 17th century.

They settled in the Soutpansberg range and mixed with the people that inhabited the region before them : the vhaNgona. The mix of VhaKaranga and VhaNgona groups led to the creation of many small groups/clans with similarities but also differences (in the language for instance) which are gathered under the name VhaVenda.

Venda people (like the Lovedu people of queen Modjadji) are surrounded by myth, legends, stories of witchcraft and all sorts of terrorizing stories which probably helped this minor group to stay on the map and survive surrounded by huge groups such as the Shona, the Tswana, the north Sotho, the Nguni (mostly the Swazi, and the Matabele of Mzilikazi), and the Tsonga (shanguan).

Some legends explain how the VhaVenda managed to keep their enemies away from their land (the magical powers of sovereigns or sacred drums) whether it is true or not they are still here today... The Domba

The Domba is a pre marital initiation, the last one in the life of VhaVenda. This rite of passage was attended by both girls and boys after each individual had previously attended other separated initiations dedicated to one’s gender :
- Vusha and Tshikanda for girls
- Murundu for boys (the circumcision done during this rite has been introduced by North Sotho).

Both girls and boys go through another initiation at the end of a one month seclusion period after their birth. Since the missionaries decided that mixing males and females in the same ceremony was immoral, only girls attend the Domba which has two main functions : teaching girls how to prepare themselves to become wives (birth planning, birth giving and child care, how to treat a husband, and nowadays teaching of AIDS risks...) ; and bringing fertility to the new generation of the tribe (anyone doubting the African beliefs can visit Venda and realize how well the fertility rites are working).

The chief or sovereign will “call” a domba and preparations are made by the families for their girls to be ready and to prepare what’s necessary to attend the ceremony (entering fees for the ruler, clothes, bangles...).

In olden days girls used to stay at the chief’s place for the whole duration (three months to three years) of the initiation ; nowadays because of schooling girls only spend week ends at the ruler’s kraal.

The Domba is not a tourists’ attraction but a ceremony with deep meanings, and it is not possible to witness many parts of it (teaching, ritual bath...). The public is only able to see the dancing which is the occasion for men to choose future wives for their nephews or sons...


The tshikona is traditionally a male dance in which each player has a pipe made out of a special indigenous type of bamboo growing only in few places around Sibasa and Thohoyandou (and which has almost disappeared now). Each pipe/player has one note only, and they have to play in turn in such a way that they build a melody.

The Tshikona is a royal dance, each sovereign or chief has his own Tshikona band. Tshikona is played at various occasions for funerals, wedding or religious ceremonies, this can be considered as the Venda “national music/dance” ; it is a music particular to VhaVenda in South Africa.


The Tshigombela is a female dance usually performed by married women, this is a festive dance sometimes played at the same time as Tshikona.


Tshifhasi is similar to Tshigombela but performed by young unmarried girls (Khomba). The Mbila

The Mbila is played in the north of South Africa and more particularly by the VhaVenda. It can be described as a keyboard made out of a piece of wood which is the resonator, and with metal blades (made out of huge nails hammered flat) which are the keys.

While the Mbila is still widely played in Zimbabwe, in Venda it is only played by a few old people, who sadly notice that most youngsters are disinterested in their own culture and let it die. The playing of the Mbila is one of the most endangered Venda traditions.

The Venda style of playing Mbila is quite different from that of Zimbabwe or Mozambique. Even if some young people can still play the Mbila in South Africa, the traditional Venda repertoire is about to disappear for ever... The drums

Drums are central in Venda culture (like in many other African tribes) and there are legends and symbols linked to them.

Most sets of drums are kept in the homes of chiefs and headmen, and comprise one ngoma, one thungwa, and two or three murumba. Sets without the Ngoma may be found in the homes of certain commoners, such as the doctors who run girls’ ’circumcision’ schools. Drums are often given personal names. Drums are always played by women and girls, except in possession dances, when men may play them, and in performances in urban areas, where men live together in compounds without their womenfolk.


This exhibition features works from the following artists :


Hugues FOULQUIER was born on the11th of December 1981 in Montluçon in Allier (Auvergne) France. After having studied in the agricultural and forestry fields, obtaining a management of forestry works certificate (matric), and having spent 1 year studying wood trading, he left France in August 2001 to move to South Africa where his family had settled a few month earlier.

In Johannesburg he studied photography during the year 2002 and obtained a certificate.

He started shooting in the Muti (traditional medicines) markets of central Johannesburg in April 2002, which led him to conduct a deeper study on Zulu traditional healers and later on of those of other tribes of south Africa.

In March 2003 he went to Venda and had the privilege to witness the Domba, a female initiation rite of the Venda people, a tribe known for being very mystical, secretive and protective that he has been studying since then. He became very interested in this unique and endangered culture, which led him to start reading ethnological and anthropological essays and studies and researching as much as shooting to understand the basics of what he was taking photographs.

He works mostly in black and white, which led him to work and research on this subject and alternative printing processes ; he has been working on the Vandyke process since February 2003.


We would like to thank Katy Coates, Jaji Stan and William Stan, Hugues Foulquier, Bob Nameng, Christophe Le Du, Marie Tacail, and all the artists.

Credits :
Texts : Hugues Foulquier, Kathy Coates
Pictures : Hugues Foulquier, Marie Tacail
Layout : Thomas Groc de Salmiech


June : Durban
May : Mbabane
July : Port Elizabeth
4 to 24 August : Cape Town
29 August to 7 Septembre : Mitchell’s Plain
15 to 30 Sept : Johannesburg
Octobre : Soweto
Novembre : Pretoria

On Tour


OCTOBER 2007 - JULY 2008





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