JOHANNESBURG — Circles and squares. Rectangles and angles. Cones, cylinders and trapezoids.
A science museum is using art and tradition to teach math to poor children in some of South Africa’s most neglected schools, based on the exquisite artwork of Ndebele artists.
Panels of geometric shapes outlined in black and filled in with bright primary colors usually adorn huts in the Ndebele tribe’s homeland in northeast South Africa. Some of those panels appeared last Wednesday on a wall at the Sci-Bono Discovery Center in downtown Johannesburg.
With a stack of shiny brass-and-beaded rings around her neck, Ndebele artist Esther Mahlangu, 73, stood on scaffolding as she began a small, complex pattern of angles and lines.
The Ndebeles’ remarkable sense of symmetry and proportion illustrates the many mathematical formulas found in geometry and trigonometry. In the lines and shapes drawn by Mahlangu, students learned about the classic theory put forth by Greek mathematician Pythagoras on the relationship between the three sides of a right-angled triangle.
(For those whose geometry lies in the distant past, it’s the square of the triangle’s hypotenuse being equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides — or the classic A squared + B squared = C squared, where C is the hypotenuse.)
“We have been learning about the patterns of mathematics and the patterns of the Ndebele,” said Smangele Vilakazi, from Emthambotini, one of the traditional villages of the Ndebele.
“[Ndebele artists] don’t know they are using math but they are,” the 16-year-old said. “I can’t do anything without math. Math is everything.”
The legacy of apartheid has left a deep divide in South Africa’s education system.
Quality schooling is still largely reserved for whites or rich black people while pupils at the hundreds of schools in poor areas suffer under badly trained teachers with little equipment.
The science museum is trying to bridge that gap through South Africa’s rich cultural heritage of indigenous bead work, architecture and painting.
“We want to show where math applies in their lives,” said Thandi O’Hagan, the museum’s education officer. “We want to demonstrate that there is not an abstract connection between math and art but a real connection.”
Ndebele paintings help students understand squares, rectangles and angles. Exercises in measurements and volume have been devised from the shapes used in the stacked gateways and decorated pillars of Ndebele homesteads. Their round huts can show circles, the relationship between circumferences and diameters, and how to solve solid geometry problems like volume.
It is a knowledge that has been transferred from generation to generation without any textbooks — just a sharp eye and a steady hand.
Mahlangu, one of five Ndebele artists taking part in last Wednesday’s event, laughed long and hard when asked whether she studied math.
“I don’t even know the door of a school, because I never went. It is all in my head,” she said.
Mahlangu has traveled all over the world, painting everything from pots to buildings and even sneakers. In 1991, she was the only black female artist to paint a BMW prototype as part of their Art Car Collection, which included work by Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol.
She remains deeply attached to her rural home and was pleased to be able to share her passion for art with the youngsters.
“They will carry on the traditions so our art won’t die,” she said.
Prince Vusi Mahlangu, from one of the two royal houses in Ndebele, said he was deeply concerned about the education of his people, who are growing up in a country with almost 25 percent unemployment.
“Let us not forget where we come from and let us use our forefathers’ teachings to better our future,” he told those at last Wednesday’s event.