Wednesday, 23 January 2013

African Art Beads

 A Zulu shaman's necklace from South Africa made of twigs, tortoiseshell, seeds, snake vertebrae, teeth, glass beads, and leather and glass beaded amulets. It is a striking example of the African capacity to combine a variety of objects into an item of adornment. The story of African beads is the story of the many contrasting lifestyles that have developed in Africa. Beadmaking has been influenced by environmental factors, the availability and distribution of raw materials, and exposure to Islamic and European culture and technology during the past fourteen hundred years. To understand the beads of Africa, it is crucial to appreciate the influence of geography on African societies. The continent is home to several distinct environments: deserts, tropical rain forests, wood-lands, savannas, and fertile river valleys. 

Natural resources are distributed unevenly within these regions, and the structure of different economic, political, and religious systems reflects variations in the natural setting. Adornment, as an expression of peoples' values and their social and economic organizations, mirrors the wide-ranging contrasts that are the essence of this continent.

When power wazs concentrated in a ruler who controlled valuable resources market-able commodities like gold and ivory, for example he generally encouraged the development of arts and crafts, both to express his power visually and to have offerings to give to the gods out of gratitude for his privileged position. Beadwork also served to distinguish the elite from ordinary people. Thus, the ornately beaded elephant masks produced for members of an exclusive group in western Cameroon is much more complex than that produced by South African Zulu villagers for themselves Nevertheless, for the latter, beads are an essential component of everyday dress, worn to signify their age, marital status, and station in society.

The neck-lace of elongated granite beads was made by the Dogon of Mali. Beads of hard stone have not been worked extensively in Africa, except in a few regions such as Mali and Nigeria. The round pottery beads are a contemporary creation of the Baoule people of the Ivory Coast.Beads are an integral part of a multilayered communication system in all African societies. Adornment, particularly with beads, communicates cultural values in a symbolic language that expresses rank, religion, politics, and artistic attitudes. Beads are still central to the lives of all Africans from hunting-and-gathering peoples of the southern Kalahari Desert to wealthy Nigerian and Ghanaian villagers and their ability to reflect a specific cultural heritage is still strongly pronounced in Africa.

Bead Materials


An enormous range of beads and raw materials for beads has been available to Africans for centuries. Throughout the continent, there has always been widespread use of organic materials for adornment including seeds, nuts, shells, bones, tusks, and teeth. The earliest known African beads are disk-shaped forms made of ostrich eggshells recovered from Upper Paleolithic (10,000 B.C.) sites in Libya and slightly later sites in the Sudan. Cowrie shell beads also have an ancient history in Africa. 

The manufacture of stone beads in sub-Saharan Africa was limited to a few localities, including the Nok culture of Nigeria in the first millennium B.C., and Djenne, Mali, in medieval times. During the fifteenth century, stone Beadmaking developed in the kingdom of Benin (in present-day Nigeria). Benin craftsmen became experts at carving stone (often agate) beads coveted by the royal court. By the seventeenth century, entire costumes of coral beads, including skirts, shirts, crowns, and staffs, became the official Benin royal dress. (Coral had been introduced by the Portuguese in the early 1500s.) Most stone beads found in Africa today, how-ever, are either of Indian origin or are copies designed to imitate Indian beads that were made in the nineteenth and twentieth century’s by German manufacturers at Idar-Oberstein. Today, the Dogon of Mali continues to make granite beads.

Bronze necklaces excavated near Djenne, Mali. The beads may date to the late Middle Ages (C. A.D. 1200), when western Sudanese kingdoms flourished and cities such as Djenne and Timbuktu were important centers of learning and trade. It is not. Clear whether the beads were imported or made in Djenne.The history of glass Beadmaking south of the Sahara is still unclear. Ancient glass beads were traded south from Egypt, but the Beadmaking technology does not seem to have accompanied them. Scholars are uncertain as to whether early sub-Saharan African glass beads were made from the basic constituents or whether glassmakers used pulverized bottles, glass ingots, or imported glass beads as their raw materials.

 Since the sixteenth century, glass Beadmaking in sub-Saharan Africa has been concentrated in today's Niger, Nigeria, and Ghana. This tradition remains intact, and today the Bida of Nigeria and Krobo of Ghana are two of the most important African glass manufacturers. There are pockets of glassmaking elsewhere on the continent, including the Mauritanian towns of Kiffa and Oualata, where craftswomen have developed exquisite polychrome glass beads.
      
The history of metal beads in Africa is somewhat obscure. Africans have used iron for tools and weapons since at least 300 B.C., but only more recently for adornment. Tin beads in' the shape of cowries, however, have been reported from a Nok site dating to the first millennium B.c.37 In Kenya, where locally made iron was plentiful, large faceted iron beads have been manufactured by the Turkana for generations. Today, Kenyan craftsmen make faceted aluminum beads from cast-bar stock. 38 Major deposits of silver are found in Ethiopia, and Ethiopian silversmiths are among the finest in Africa.

The Baoule of the Ivory Coast shares a common history and culture with the Asante. In both cultures, gold was generally available only to royal household members. Thus, goldsmiths created beads for most people in bronze, shown here, matching the styles of gold beads.
European explorers and traders arriving in West Africa in the early fifteenth century noted an abundance of gold jewelry, including beaded necklaces. Many West African gold beads described by Europeans were made by the Asante using a “lost-wax" casting process. It has been acknowledged for millenniums that Africa was well endowed with gold. Sudanese mines supplied Old Kingdom jewelers, and by the New Kingdom era, gold was brought from sources farther south. Throughout the Middle Ages, Islamic Asia and much of Christian Europe depended on African gold. 

Empires, Kingdoms, and Trade


Stone and glass beads were favored trade items with Indian, Middle Eastern, and European merchants. Shipments of beads began arriving in Africa by at least the fourth century A.D. While a few Arab traders penetrated the interior of Africa using established trans-Saharan trade routes, most Indians and Europeans were confined to coastal trading posts until the middle of the nineteenth century. From these commercial outposts, foreigners dealt with African middlemen who moved beads inland along the trade networks. II is not surprising that the early trading centers including Kilwa, Zanzibar, Sofala, Djenne, and Timbuktu today have archaeological sites rich in imported stone and glass beads. 

 A collection of gold beads from Kumasi, Ghana, cast in the lost-wax technique, by gold-smiths using trade secrets passed from father to son. Made in the 1930s, the beads follow the traditional forms of the royal treasures of Asante chiefs.Peoples on the West African coast began to trade with Europe in the late fifteenth century. First were the Portuguese, followed over the next four hundred years by the Dutch, English, French, Belgians, and Germans. They brought millions of Venetian, Dutch, and Bohemian glass beads to Africa.
     
The forms and colors of beads that people sought changed constantly and varied from region to region. It was not unusual for European traders to arrive in port with large quantities of a bead greatly coveted in the last transaction, only to discover that these particular beads were no longer desired. Certain beads, however, were popular for long periods of time. 

Cornaline d`Aleppo was popular in different forms. The cornerless, hexagonal dark blue glass beads were known to the South African Ndebele as "ambassador beads:' because they were worn by shamans who "went into the Matopo Hills to ask advice from the great god of the Matabele." The complex millefiore and wound blue glass annular beads were worn by the chiefs who met David Livingstone, the British missionary at Victoria Falls in 1855 (Bead Chart 50, 53, and 112).

Bodom beads collected in Ghana. Figs. 1-5: late nineteenth century Fig. 3: length, 4.3 cm. Estate of Dr. Michael, Heide, Portland, Oregon. Fig. 6: twentieth century.

The Unity of African Beads


Although each African culture has evolved distinctive patterns of bead use, several unifying themes apply throughout the continent. Basic to the animism that pervades life in sub-Saharan Africa is the spiritual energy a fine bead necklace or beadwork piece imparts. Although both Islam and Christianity are practiced in Africa, they have been shaped to accommodate animistic beliefs in inanimate objects that, whether created by nature or man, have spiritual force. 

This is why African artifacts often have such a strong aesthetic presence, even if they are not technically sophisticated. It is also why we often respond strongly to an African necklace, independent of any knowledge about its origins, use, or imparted meaning.
    
On the left is u beaded collar to which is attached a small patterned panel, known as a "love letter" Zulu girls convey to their suitors, and wives to their husbands, feelings of courtship, love, hope, yearning, and sadness through the choice of colors and patterns woven into these fiat beadwork panels. Blue may represent gossip, thought, or sky; red can symbolize "eyes red with weeping "from "seeking one's lover in vain," or can symbolize blood or fire; yellow can be for riches or poverty; white always means love and purity Juxtaposed colors take on special meanings: a pink and white panel might say: "You are poor . . . but I love you."Such messages are part of the private dialogue in a couple's relationship and are rarely understood by outsiders." On the right is a bead-work bag similar to those worn by young unmarried Zulu men in the early twentieth century, the time when Zulu men began wearing beads.African beadwork is meant to be noticed. As Angela Fisher has written in Africa Adorned, beads say, "Look at me!" They range from layers of colorful necklaces worn in Kenya to a minimal beaded cache-sexe apron in Cameroon. In Africa, as elsewhere, "One can find superior taste demonstrated through either restraint or abundance. A minimal costume may carry for some group the same prestige as an accumulative one does for another To further draw attention, the beads are often accompanied by sound effects the rattling of cowrie shells, for example.
  
African beads are commonly part of an assemblage, a mixture of materials twigs, shells, glass, and bones put on a necklace or article of jewelry in a seemingly haphazard way, so that the object may not appear to have been designed. A marvelous example is the Zulu neck-lace shown on page.

An umutsha, a late nineteenth- or early twentieth-century Zulu belt made of several beaded ropes sewn together It was worn by both young men and unmarried women. This is an example of a beadwork technique that developed at a time when beads became available in great quantities.
 Finally, African adornment has been and is essentially a community art. The forms taken by beaded necklaces, bracelets, hats, and aprons are usually determined by a set of commonly held standards. For the most part, artist and wearer are not expressing their private feelings or inspiration. Rather, personal touches are executed within generally accepted limitations, so that beaded adornment, like all African art, unifies the community by conveying and reinforcing common understandings.
      
 Beads were, and still are, used in Africa to create objects representing spiritual values basic to the survival of the community. These objects play a major role in rituals insuring continuity of the group: birth, circumcision, marriage, warriorhood, kingship, death. Susan Vogel's discussion of African art in For Spirits and Kings can be extrapolated to include the significance of much African beaded adornment: "In societies without writing, art objects can acquire extraordinary importance as visual records. . . . On a deeper level, works of art are endowed with complex meaning and serve as repositories of traditional knowledge. They are dense concentrations of ancestral wisdom that must be preserved and transmitted to succeeding generations.

Bodom Beads
One of a pair of nineteenth century dance panels, worn by a Yoruba priest or priestess at the time of an annual festival and made of locally woven cotton cloth and imported European glass seed beads. The faces that appear on many beaded bags or panels are conceived as images of the spiritual power of the worshiper.      Glass bodom beads of a certain age and design are greatly treasured today in Ghana and are thought to have magical or medicinal powers. All bodom are predominantly yellow and often have a black or dark gray inner core. Visible signs of use, such as the erosion and chipping of the outer surface and the exposure of a dark inner core, add significantly to their value. The date for the advent of powder-glass techniques in Africa and therefore the appearance of bodom s not certain, although it is possible they appeared in the sixteenth century. Their source of manufacture continues to be a mystery. It has been suggested that beads such as those shown were probably not made in Africa. 

The high temperature needed to produce these beads, with their well-crafted trailed decorations made from glass rods, argues against an African origin. Regardless of their non-European appearance, they are possibly European simulations of African prototypes. 

Writer - Lois Sherr Dubin
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