U.S. Zulu Connection

The Hampton Example

Cliff Hocker

During the early 1900s Hampton University — then called Hampton Institute — was a vital link in the transfer of art and culture between South Africa and the United States. Exchanges started then helped to shape South African history and live on in U.S. art and society to this day.Madikane Cele in Zulu regalia. Photo: Hampton University Archives

That was a major theme of Global Zulu, an April 11 Focus Series presentation at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.  Gary van Wyk, a scholar of African art, traced Hampton's African Quartet in Zulu costumes. Photo collection Hampton University Archiveshow Hampton-educated black South Africans carried progressive ideas back to their homeland and got involved in political and cultural movements that culminated in the overthrow of Apartheid. Author of Pop Art: 50 Works of Art You Should Know and curator of the Axis Gallery in New York, van Wyk was active during the 1980s in the anti-apartheid Resistance Art Movement.  In his talk, he further showed how the iconic image of 19th century warrior king Shaka Zulu has inspired African Americans.

 "In African American art history and among African American artists during the New Negro Movement, many began to look at African art as an affirmation of identity and roots.  And I think that point of view is something that's still enduring in many quarters of African American thought. I don't want to speak for that constituency because I am not of it, but I think that African Americans can look to aspects of African culture and still find them inspirational; and that would include Zulu art," says Van Wyk. "For example, one of the most vibrant aspects of Zulu and South African traditional art are the amazing graphic patterns that we see in beadwork and in murals.  Since I did my doctoral work on southern African women's murals, I know that the traditional designs that I studied and published have been widely influential and replicated in schools in Harlem, in murals in Harlem, even in designs on telephone booths in Times Square in New York. They've inspired teachers in arts on the West Coast to build mud buildings [adobe] with mud mural designs that are inspired by South African women's art.  So I think that art has amazing ways of crossing cultures and crossing situations.  And so Zulu art is there, waiting to be viewed and discovered and enjoyed."

 For Americans, however, Zulu influence is dwarfed by that of West Africa, says van Wyk. "When I look at things like African American-oriented design magazines looking to give African flavors to interiors or something like that, the more typical source material tends to be West African, like Kuba cloth and the mud cloth from Mali — West African influences. Those tend to be the things that are more commonly adopted.  Or masks. In Zulu culture, they've never made any masks.  This is not a mask-making culture.  This is not a culture that makes ancestor figures. So to appreciate Zulu carving, for example, you have to look at these rather abstract, very minimalist things that look simple, like a head rest. But it's full of symbolic meaning and power because it refers to the sacred cattle, and it's the place where you dream when your ancestors speak to you when your head is on that wooden pillow.  So no big figures, no big mama figures, no scary masks, but there is something much more subtle."

 Nevertheless, van Wyk observes several Zulu manifestations in American society and popular culture today. These references to Zulu sources draw from their perceived strengths but often descend into stereotypical depictions.

  • The Zulu Cannibal Giants were a baseball team that in 1938 pre-dated the Harlem Globe Trotters as a comical enactment of athletics.  They also called themselves the Zulu Tribe.
  • Even in 2013, a major attraction of the New Orleans Mardi Gras parade continues to be a float by the ZULU Social Aid & Pleasure Club.  "Zulu Krewe at Mardi Gras is another very interesting look at Zulu influence in contemporary pop culture. And it's also a very progressive group, because they call themselves a Social Aid Club as well. So they have a  social conscience.   It's really quite a progressive group," says van Wyk. This despite their use of blackface.
  • There have also been Reggae groups that call themselves Zulu or were influenced by Zulu.  Finally, one of today's dominant music genres has a Zulu link.  "Afrika Bambaataa had this whole Zulu Nation  idea that is integral to his whole world — and he is one of the originators of Hip Hop. So there are really important connections of Zulu in popular culture," concludes van Wyk.

Madikane Cele and wife. They met at Hampton Institute. Photo: Joyce Cele collectionZulu apron, beads, cloth, mid-20th century.  Photo courtesy Linda BrittanMadikane Cele was a Zulu South African who graduated from Hampton in 1912. Cele was the nephew of John Dube, a leading Zulu intellectual educated by American missionaries and also in the United States.  Dube became founding president of the political party that later led South Africa to democracy under Nelson Mandela.

Joyce Cele Williams (center) viewing Zulu beadwork at Hampton University Museum with Dingane Mthethwa and HUM curator Vanessa Thaxton-Ward. Photo Juliette HarrisMany of Cele's artifacts and papers are in the Hampton University's archives. He married an African American woman from Virginia, who also attended Hampton.  After a total of nine years in America, Madikane Cele returned to Natal, taking with him his wife and the determination to teach Christianity and practical technology to his people.

Present at the VMFA event was Cele's daughter, Joyce Cele Williams, now 85. She had left South Africa during the turbulent 1960s, settling in Lynchburg. 

The day after the lecture, Richard B. Woodward, VMFA curator of African art, brought Joyce Cele Williams and her Los Angeles-based niece, Joyce Cele, to the Hampton campus for a tour of its museum and a review of the Cele papers in the archives. 

Woodward is organizing an exhibition on Zulu art and culture which will open in 2016 at the VMFA.

Most of Hampton University Museum’s Zulu collection of beaded necklaces, belts, head and wrist bands, headdresses, courting shields and outfits was assembled by Reuben T. Caluza, class of 1936, a Zulu student from Edendale, Natal, South Africa.  Caluza, a music major and an accomplished composer and arranged of Zula songs, organized a performing arts group at Hampton called “The African Quartet.”  The quartet consisted of Caluza and three West African students to whom Caluza taught  Zulu songs and dances.   Dressed in Zulu dance regalia, the quartet performed on campus and throughout the South to convey an understanding to African music and culture to American audiences.

The discussion of Zulu beading expertise continued after Joyce Cele Williams and Richard Woodward’s visit to Hampton.  “Looking at the beaded apron makes Kuba cloth, Hampton University Museum Collectionme glad and sad,”   one HU Museum staff member told Woodward.  “ Sad because so many opportunities were lost for the artful math skills of Africans to be transferred to technical development on the continent.  The intricate beading reminds me of a computer bitmap!  Glad because persons such as your selves will help us make the best of the huge opportunities available now.  The HU Museum has applied for an NSF grant to develop teacher training programs on pre-algebra instruction that draw from various forms of mathematical art.  The program is designed for at-risk 6th graders.”

In his reply, Richard Woodward  said that the VMFA is active in developing programs that relate to the state's SOL's and math is key among them.  “I think our staff will take a great interest in the HUM approach to creating these educational materials.  I am not certain what types of materials that we have, but I will look into it.  This is a really wonderful by-product of the collaboration and, or course, of African design.  And just think about the calculus of Kuba textiles!”

The Hampton University Museum Kuba collection was donated by William H. Sheppard who attended Hampton from 1881 through 1882, at which time he transferred to a seminary to train as a minister.   Sheppard’s collection is the first systematic collection of African art assembled by an African American and in 1892, Sheppard was the first Westerner to travel to the Kuba royal capital.   The Kuba people live in the area of central Africa now known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Cliff Hocker is a contributing writer to the IRAAA+ webzine.