Patterns of Life: Beadwork from East and South Africa
Beadwork – full of brilliant colour and pattern – is one of the most dynamic art forms in Africa. Beads are a widespread feature of adornment and have been treasured by African people throughout history.
Like flags and languages, beadwork traditions in East and South Africa signal group identity. What a person wears also communicates his or her age, marital status, social rank and spiritual state. Among the Xhosa- and Zulu-speaking people of South Africa, many patterns, colours and motifs of beaded ornaments have meanings attached to them, which form a symbolic system that mirrors language. In the Zulu system of colour symbolism, white beads stand generally for purity, black for darkness, and light blue beads indicate ripeness and fertility.
Beadwork remains a vibrant living tradition in Africa, and artists continue to create beadwork that retains its prestige within African communities. As a vehicle of self-expression, Ndebele and Maasai women create and wear their splendid beaded clothing as adornment, while Zulu women have found a market for their beadwork skills selling to local tourists. Artists experiment with new designs and materials, including plastic beads, and produce works for themselves, their communities and for the world market.
Roxane Shaughnessy, B.A., M.A., is collections manager and associate curator at the Textile Museum of Canada in Toronto. She has directed a four-year project to develop a digital database of images of the Museum’s collection.