How African Beadwork Changed The World

Bead There, Done That

Beads were first made in Africa from organic materials – like bone, shells and seeds – many thousands of years ago. In more recent times, imported glass beads dating back to the mid-11th century have been found in present-day South Africa and Zimbabwe. Here we explore some of Africa’s extraordinary and culturally rich forms of beadwork, mostly from southern Africa.

1. From Ostrich Eggs to Beads

Some of the earliest known beads were made from ostrich egg shells. Whilst not many of these ancient beads survive today, they were probably similar to the ones shown here in this 19th-century beaded bodice from Namibia—and were used for many different types of body ornamentation. Just imagine all the hours of work that went into making these beads.

Bodice (poss. 19th century.) (Museum of Ethnology Hamburg)

2. Trading Time

Southern Africa has a long history of trade with Europe, China and India, and European beads in particular became very popular across the African continent. By the mid-16th century, a wide variety of glass beads were being manufactured in European factories, often to suit the tastes of African consumers. Africans also melted down some imported beads to craft their own unique creations. Take a look at these beautiful 19th-Century Venetian beads – ones similar to this would have made it all the way to Africa, where they became prized items.

Bead, tubular, 19th century. (Freer and Sackler Galleries)
String of 21 Millefiori Beads, Date Unknown 1800 - 1899. (Corning Museum of Glass)

3. Not Just About Looking Pretty
But in the 16th-Century, what really took off and found immense popularity, however, were the tiny, ‘seed-like’ beads which we still see today across eastern and southern Africa. Over decades and centuries, African artisans applied their incredible skill and artistry to this new material, creating amazing new forms of material culture. Some of the best known beadwork from southern Africa is from the Ndebele people of South Africa.

These demonstrate that beadwork is not simply about looking pretty. Beadwork has been used to carry all sorts of other meanings – communicating social and cultural messages about the wearer’s age, marital status or regional origin, for example.

Ndebele Child at Wedding. Carol Beckwith & Angela Fisher. 1996. (African Ceremonies)

4. Beading Genius: The Ndebele of South Africa

The geometric beaded designs of the Ndebele people, for example, are said to reflect their cultural identity, as well as play various social functions. Different types of beadwork have historically been worn by girls and women at different stages of their lives, communicating their status as children, unmarried adolescents or married women. For example, this apron called the isiphephetu is traditionally worn by adolescent girls, usually made by a girl’s mother or grandmother, and symbolizing her journey from childhood to adulthood. Zoom in to see some of the amazing detail on the apron:

Isiphephetu / Young Woman's Frontal Apron, Kwandebele, c.1970. (Iziko South African National Gallery)
Isiphephetu / Young Woman's Frontal Apron, Kwandebele, c.1970. (Iziko South African National Gallery)

5. Wedding Gear

When the time comes to get married, Ndebele brides traditionally wear a five-flap apron, like these:

Bride’s apron ("Jocolo") Unknown, 20th century. (Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University)
Bride's apron (jocolo), 1900/1999. (British Museum)

6. Attention to Detail...

Once married, an Ndebele woman might be expected to wear a beaded blanket cape like this one. It's hard to even comprehend the time that it would have taken to not only design the cape, but also sew on all of the thousands of beads.

Married Woman's Blanket Cape (Ngurara), Mid-20th century. (The Baltimore Museum of Art)
Married Woman's Blanket Cape (Ngurara), Mid-20th century. (The Baltimore Museum of Art)

7. Fertility and the Future

Beadwork was also used by Ndebele until the mid-20th century to make fertility dolls or ‘child figures’. These objects are not for intended for children’s play, but for young women who wanted to have children, and for older women who had trouble conceiving. The figures evoke the human figure, as well as ceremonial dress. Can you see the head and the arms in this one? Click on the image to zoom in further and see the beads up close:

Fertility Figure, Johanna Nqabindi, Mid 20th century. (Iziko South African National Gallery)
Fertility Figure, Johanna Nqabindi, Mid 20th century. (Iziko South African National Gallery)

8. Beads for Everyone

If you’re thinking that it’s only African women who wear beads, you might think again when you see these fantastic men’s corsets from much further north, originating in South Sudan in the late 1970s.

Dinka Men in Beaded Corsets, South Sudan. Carol Beckwith & Angela Fisher. (African Ceremonies)
Mans Corset, Unknown, 20th century. (Brooklyn Museum)

For centuries, beads and beadwork have played an important part in many African societies – not only as items of trade, but in social and cultural life. In the beautiful creations shown here, beads have been used in their thousands to create artistic and impactful designs. Many of these have come to identify the social and ethnic groups who make them, as well as the life stages of individuals. So next time you spot a beaded necklace or ornament, you’ll be reminded that beadwork is far more than just meets the eye.

Words by Julie Taylor
Share this story with a friend
Translate with Google