Title: Between the beads : reading African beadwork
Full Citation
Permanent Link: http://ufdc.ufl.edu/UF00091311/00001
 Material Information
Title: Between the beads : reading African beadwork
Physical Description: Book
Language: English
Creator: Harn Museum of Art, University of Florida
Publisher: Harn Museum of Art, University of Florida
Place of Publication: Gainesville, Fla.
 Record Information
Bibliographic ID: UF00091311
Volume ID: VID00001
Source Institution: Samuel P. Harn Museum of Art
Holding Location: Samuel P. Harn Museum of Art
Rights Management: All rights reserved by the source institution and holding location.


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Between the Beads

Reading African Beadwork

Small and beautiful, beads are one of the most versatile and
expressive art mediums. For thousands of years across the
continent of Africa, beads were prestigious trade items that
were used in masquerades, shrines and royal regalia and as
adornment for the body. In each of these contexts, beads
have had a primary role in communicating complex ideas
about religion, aesthetics, and social and political status.
This exhibition focuses on the many ways that beaded
objects communicate meaning within a variety of historical
and cultural contexts and explores the transformation of
meanings throughout time and across cultures.

The most extensive evidence of early bead production
and use has been found in Africa. The oldest beads that
have been discovered on the continent are drilled ostrich
egg shells from southern Africa that have been dated to
the Middle Stone Age (280,000 to 45,000 years ago)
and perforated shells from northern Africa that are
80,000 years old. In addition to ancient beads, prehistoric
paintings of humans wearing elaborate beadwork
adornments have been discovered on cave walls in southern
Africa and the Sahara Desert. Among the earliest items
used for domestic and religious purposes and body
adornment, beads are some of the first material signs of
symbolic thought, an indicator of modern human behavior.
Although we have no way of knowing the full meaning
of these ancient beads, we may conjecture that they were
not only a means of adorning the human form but also an
expression of social identity or religious practices.

Ndebele people, South Africa, c. 1960, Gala Blanket (Nguba)
Commercial blanket, cotton, glass beads, 5 ft. 2 in. x 5 ft. 2 in. (157.5 x 157.5 cm.)
Gift of William D. and Norma Canelas Roth, 2005.47.4

Later, locally produced beads were made of bone, shell,
wood, reed, ceramic, ivory, glass, semi-precious stone, and
horn and metal. Through early trade routes from Asia and
the Mediterranean, other kinds of materials and beads were
imported, expanding the bead workers' palettes to include
amber from the Baltic; ceramic glazed beads from China;
agate and carnelian from India; and glass beads from Rome.
Brass, imported from Europe beginning in the fifteenth
century, is a precious metal used in bead production that
has continued for centuries in West Africa. By the sixteenth
century, wound, drawn and molded glass beads from the
famous Murano glassworks in Venice found their way to
Africa. In the nineteenth century, beads from Moravia and
Bohemia, now the Czech Republic, flooded the western,
central and southern African markets. These kinds of
imported beads were acquired at great cost and regarded as

Mfengu people, South Africa, Young Matron's Dress, late 19th-early 20th century
Cloth, leather, beads, metal, rubber
On mount, from crown of hat to bottom of skirt: 5 ft. 3 in. (160 cm.)
Museum purchase, funds provided by the Caroline Julier and
James G. Richardson Art Acquisition Fund
Xhosa people, South Africa, ForkedApron (iinkciya), 19th century
Glass beads, sinew, leather, 14 x 6 3/4 in. (35.6 x 17.1 cm.)
On loan from Daniel and Dori Rootenberg

signifiers of wealth and prestige. In the exhibition, Yoruba
beaded crowns and South African ceremonial garments
illuminate the use of imported beads to convey the links
between economic status and social, religious and political

Objects presented in the exhibition are drawn from the
Harn Museum's collection and private collections. They are
organized in groups according to the most important ideas
that they communicate, including "Desire for Children,"
"Growing Up," "Family Ties," "Marital
Status," "Dialogue with Spirits,"
and "Power and Prestige." Within
these groups are beaded objects
used in daily life, such as doll-
like figures and garments
and adornments for everyday
wear. Other works, including
masks, costumes, containers,
implements, display objects
and royal regalia, were used in
sacred and secular ceremonies.
These objects demonstrate
ingenious strategies used to
communicate ideas with beads.
Some works express highly
complex ideas through
subtly configured
colors and patterns,
and others employ

l .* 0J

Zandile Ma Ndlovu Dube, South African, Beadedpanel (isibebe), 1969
Glass beads, 11 1/2 x 6 1/2 x 1/4 in. (29.2 x 16.5 x .6 cm.), museum purchase
with Harn general programs endowment funds, 2007.27.14

Dynamic strategies of beadwork communication Bamileke peoples, Cameroon, n.d., Elephant MaskforKuosi Society ,cloth, beads and
used in and across cultures are traceable. This is fur, 32 x 46 in. (81.3 x 116.8 cm.), gift of Dr. and Mrs. Arlan Rosenbloom, T78-1-A,B
most clearly seen in Zulu beadwork used to convey
messages to lovers as an important form of marriage Acknowledgements
negotiation. By the nineteenth century, this form of Interpretive text for the exhibition, available throughout
negotiation had developed into a highly sophisticated the gallery, was supplied in part by the students in Dr.
art. The beaded panels, commonly known today as Victoria Rovine's fall 2007 Clothing and Textiles in Africa
"love letters," included messages that were originally class. Their text will be featured on the exhibition Web
composed of geometric abstract shapes in various site, www.harn.ufl.edu/beadwork. This effort was made
configurations, but by the mid-twentieth century, this possible by technical support from the Digital Library
wholly visual system gave way to using written text. Center at the University of Florida. Additional images of
In many types ofbeadwork, it is the material used to African beadwork can be found on the center's Web site
produce beads that conveys meaning. This is seen in at www.uflib.ufl.edu/spec/africana/. Staff from the UF
a Somali Porte Koran necklace in the exhibition that Digital Library Center who assisted in the development of
has beads made of amber and agate, both regarded as the exhibition Web site include Katerie Gladdys, assistant
powerful medicines for healing professor of digital media; Lourdes Santamaria-Wheeler,
and preventing maladies. digital production supervisor; and Katherine McGonigle,
digital media graduate student and Harn Museum of Art
The beaded art objects in this exhibition can only intern. The exhibition and their participation was made
begin to suggest the versatility of beadwork in possible by a gift from a generous donor with additional
communicating cultural and personal meaning and support from the Dr. Madelyn M. Lockhart Endowment
can only hint at the length of the time span that for Focus Exhibitions.
beads have been one of the most prevalent
SAfrican art forms used to further The Harn Museum would like to thank the following
S various modes of social and political individuals for their contributions to the exhibition: Dr.
discourse. FrankJolles, University of KwaZulu Natal; Jonathan Walz,
University of Florida; Dori and Daniel Rootenberg; and
Barbara Palmer.

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