THE NDEBELE artist threads her beaded skirt with her South African heritage and with curious dreams about the West. She fashions pictures of houses with stairs and plumbing and electric lights, buildings that may symbolize her thoughts of wealth as much as her fantasies about design.
''Ndebele Beadwork,'' a collection of traditionally beade garments and objects -- cloaks, aprons, necklaces, ritual dolls, ceremonial maces and household objects -- will be at the Baltimore Museum of Art through Jan. 13. It is a show about how the women of this tribe have always celebrated their lives with art and of how they continue to produce it despite their forced relocation by the South African government. In a sense, it is an art of protest even if the motifs seem innocuous, says Frederick Lamp, curator of the Arts of Africa, the Americas and Oceania at the BMA.
Many designs in the beadwork show elements of modern life telephone poles, light fixtures, the letters of license plates. The compositions also reflect the geometry of the traditional wall paintings with which the Ndebele decorate their compounds. Informed by haunting tribal life photographs by Constance Stuart Larrabee and Margaret Courtney-Clarke, this exhibition reveals a carefully forged world guarded by aesthetic traditions.
''The Ndebele take a tremendous pleasure in creating bol designs,'' Lamp says. ''Some of the architectural elements they use mix together perception from the ground and from elevations. It does something similar to what Cubism did: Take the form and break it up and see it in different ways. Although this is not Cubism in any sense, it's an Ndebele-originated sense TC of form that is a celebration of their architecture.''
Showing work from the late 19th century to the present ''Ndebele Beadwork'' is assembled primarily from Baltimore collections. Lamp says the exhibition may mark the first show of Ndebele art in an American museum, although tourists have valued the beadwork for decades.
''There is a great interest in contemporary African art, which ha been snubbed in the past by African art historians. It's important to emphasize that Africa's not dead, that people are living in vibrant societies, and that the art is continuing,'' he says.
The museum's permanent collection of African art receives mor requests for group tours than any other BMA collection except for the Cone Collection, which is world famous for work by Matisse, Picasso, Cezanne, Gauguin, Van Gogh and Renoir. In addition, the department has increased its African art exhibitions to approximately one each year. Upcoming shows include a major exhibition of the art of the Baga group in Guinea, which the BMA will co-sponsor with the Center for African Art in New York.
The local surge of interest keeps pace with a national trend. Th arrivals of the Center for African Art in New York (1984) and the new building of the National Museum for African Art in Washington (1985) have generated a lot of enthusiasm, while major exhibitions and traveling shows have increased understanding of the complexities of African art.
Soaring art market prices have brought further appreciation. Th Bangwa Queen, a Cameroon sculpture that was displayed at the BMA in 1987, commanded $3.4 million at auction last summer, a record for African art.
However Lamp says academic instruction lags far behind publi demand. Morgan State University and the University of Maryland, College Park are the only area institutions to offer credited courses in African art each year. Lamp teaches a credited course in the continuing studies department of Johns Hopkins University every other year.
He points out that Janson's History of Art, the field's mos respected survey book, lumped 19th and 20th century African art together with cave paintings in a chapter entitled ''Primitive Art'' for almost 30 years.
The fourth edition of Janson's -- to be published in December - will change the section's title to ''Prehistoric and Ethnographic Art.'' It will also include the work of 29 women artists. Until 1975, Janson's did not mention a single woman artist.
Lamp sees a connection between scholars' increasin acknowledgments of the importance of African art and women artists.
''Women's studies have had an impact on African studies which, again, is changing the way we think about art. Study of women's art is a new area in African art. We're adjusting our whole outlook on what, exactly, art is.
''Previously we have said that the art which women have don isn't art. But ceramics and textiles are starting to pique the interest of historians. They are blurring the distinctions between fine arts and crafts. People are wondering if those distinctions should exist at all, and realizing that they were probably drawn up along gender lines.''
In the past scholars have slighted Ndebele beadwork and wal decorations, which are created exclusively by women. When married women wear beaded ensembles weighing as much as 50 pounds, however, they are making statements that go far beyond fashion.
''Ndeble art seems to arise out of a concern for social status, a extraordinary passion for design and a deeply valued sense of aesthetic exhibition,'' Lamp writes.
It is also becoming an international spokeswoman for the tribe.
''An important part of the initiation of Ndebele girls is still th learning of these arts,'' he says. ''In order to be an Ndebele, you must learn what it is to produce art.''
''Ndeble Beadwork,'' an exhibit of 70 objects, will be on display through Jan. 13. Special events include a demonstration of beadwork styles from 1-3 p.m. Sunday and a workshop for
children aged 8 and older from 2:30-4:30 p.m. Nov. 10. For workshop reservations call 396-6320.