Ndebele: A 3D Hommage to Esther Mahlangu

I was born in France; both of my parents are from the Republic of Congo. From a very young age, I was attracted to African art. My parents taught me about my background and the stories of my ancestors, and I can’t thank them enough for this formative influence on my art. 

I visited Brazzaville (the capital city of Congo) multiple times when I was a kid, and the childhood memories I still have are a big part of the art I create today. I really want to create art that my family can relate to!

I particularly remember the painting school in Poto-Poto: we used to buy a lot of art for our house from there. I would often see talented kids and adults painting crazy, colored shapes, with such dexterity and speed, it was unbelievable. The Congolese love their fashion and like to wear extravagant colors: yellow, pink or blue suits, or even beautiful wax-printed cloth. Before leaving, we would visit the markets to buy teke, chokwe, bifwebe, and other masks as well as statues and jewelry.

Ndebele: the concept 

I typically work with traditional art, mainly handcrafted masks, shields, jewelry, and drawings. Each country, each city, and ethnicity has its own art and rituals and I love learning about them. I find knowledge in museums, documentaries, books ⁠— or simply by asking my family about it.

The initial idea came to me immediately; I have always wanted to make a piece about the Ndebele traditional art.

Artwork by Jeryce Dianingana

The Ndebele people are part of the Nguni tribe, which includes the Zulu, Xhosa, and Swazi people. Ndebele women show their status through art and fashion. They can be seen wearing golden neck rings, gifted by their husband, decorated with colorful pearls.

They take their love of decoration all over in their settlements by using their homes as giant canvases. They never leave a side blank. Each side of the house is decorated with beautiful colours, like in this Lesedi Cultural Village.

Photo by Angela Abel

Esther Mahlangu’s style has consistently fascinated me. In a lot of ways, it is both traditional and different. Originally, the Ndebele paintings were created in black and white with your fingers. Mahlangu and her family were the first to modernize this technique: they used symmetrical and straight patterns and more colors.

What surprised me most was how Esther just uses a chicken feather instead of a ruler! She has been quoted in the past, saying “The ruler is in your mind”.

I wanted to pay homage to her by hand-painting everything. My plan was not to cheat using tricks and shortcuts: I wanted the hand-painted feel of her work to come across in my own creation. 

Ndebele: first draft and iterations

I started with a simple blockout. I knew that I wanted a bust of a Ndebele woman as a central piece, and complement it with masks painted by a Ndebele artist. Since I love masks and bronze sculptures, I thought including both together could make an interesting piece. 

Artwork by Jeryce Dianingana

I chose two long masks and two round ones. At the start, I wasn’t sure which design I would use for the mask, so I went hunting for references in books and online. I did have some rough ideas in my head: I knew I wanted to base my concepts on the masks’ countries of origin. 

Kifwebe: the challenge of wood

The kifwebe mask was the most challenging one. It has the most history associated with its design. 

Artwork by Jeryce Dianingana

Kifwebe masks are made by the Songye and Luba people in the central Democratic Republic of Congo. The masks represent rituals, spirits of nature, justice, and also celebrate life. I love that every occurrence of these masks is unique: there are so many different variations, it’s crazy! 

I kept the sculpt simple, as the masks are more about demonstrating great material definition. 

I wanted to be able to edit the material easily to have the freedom to iterate. I made the wood directly in Substance Painter, to avoid repeating the baking process if I was not happy.

I started by making what I call the bare wood layer; the state of the masks before all the polish and painting. This layer is the most important one because everything will depend on it.

I made sure the wood patterns followed the shape of the mask.  I created one vertical and a horizontal “wood rough” material blended with a simple mask. With the help of the tri-planar projection, I was able to find the pattern that I wanted. 

The next step was to have a chiseled wood effect. I used a fill with a cell noise to reproduce the effect. 

My first iteration tiled too much on the mask, so I broke it with a curvature and stacked another randomized cell pattern. These cells are straight by nature so I warped them a little bit. The warping focuses on adding variation. It’s important to break up the shapes. 

As a final touch for the wood layer, I added chips in the height channel to reinforce the mask’s older and more handcrafted feel. That’s the kind of tiny details I see in my reference and something I love to create. 

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Polished wood

Polished masks painted black are more common nowadays. The artists often use round and smooth reflective shapes to attract tourists. They do still keep ancient traditions and old shapes, though. I like to see how current African artists are refreshing the ancient craft. 

Artwork by Jeryce Dianingana

My polished ebony wood is simpler and easier to make, and only composed of two layers. For the base, I used the same “wood rough” material as the Kifwebe, but in a dark brown color. I applied a fill with a black color to replicate the paint. I worked mainly on the roughness and height details to make the polished wood more believable.

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I have a couple of traditional African masks in my house, so it was easy to find real-world reference material!

My first ever mask creations were pretty bad, I used to just put a black glossy colour and call it finished. Now I have learnt how to push my details further: if you look closely there are tons of small details in the height and especially the roughness. You don’t always see these details.

I think the best way to replicate the specular response is to have the mask in your hands and alter the lighting around you. I always observed the masks in real life as I worked.

If anyone was watching me they would probably think I looked quite suspicious. 

Ondze: the Ndebele woman

For the Ndebele woman that I called “Ondze”, I was inspired by the work of Charles Cordier and his “African Venus”. After wood, bronze statues are my favorite. 

Walters Art Museum / Public domain

I opted to create a light dull bronze material to the statue to ensure I didn’t lose the shape of the model. I find this can happen when your models are too shiny and metallic. 

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I used the smart material “bronze armor” as a base, and tweaked everything until I was happy. Then, I instanced it across the neck rings and support. 

Reproducing handpaint

The main goal, as mentioned previously, was to do everything by hand on my tablet (a Wacom Cintiq) and try to avoid too many undos. The real-life masks truly look handcrafted; By provoking “happy accidents,” I could replicate some of that personal touch.

With this project, I learned how to be more patient. To not be afraid to just paint with my tablet. This was something I had battled with in the past: I always found a way to use a generator or something to speed up the process. However, this time, there was no other way than to just paint it by hand.

First, I painted the space for the background of the patterns in white. I then created the outlines in black.

All the new brush features and the pen pressure settings in Substance Painter helped me throughout my project. It felt really natural and gave me results that I didn’t expect. The visible direction of the strokes and changes in the opacity add to the feel of the object.

What really gives life to my scene is not having straight lines. The difficulty was in finding good patterns, though. I constantly focused on them fitting on the existing shapes of the masks. They had to be not too big and not too small.

When I was happy with the patterns, I just had to select the layer of colour that I wanted to use, and fill the space by hand.

In order to make sure that the balance between the colors was good, I would often zoom out to see if I had used the same color too many times or if I forgot to put a certain color in. 

It was a long process but so satisfying: I really felt connected with my 3D, I could even smell the ebony wood. Although maybe that wasn’t Substance Painter but my desk, covered in masks.

I would like to express my gratitude to what Esther Mahlangu and her people gave to the world, the many artists who gave me inspiration for those masks and Substance for letting me express myself and show what I love.

Meet Jeryce

Jeryce Dianingana is a 3D Environment artist who mainly works in AAA game studios. He blends his African heritage with his experience in 3D to create a perfect combination of his two passions in life.

Find him on Instagram, Twitter, and ArtStation.

Jeryce will be live next week with the team! Don’t miss the livestream on YouTube: