Nursing charms (ikhubalo), all by unknown Xhosa artists

Featuring intricate designs infused with symbolism, tradition and history, beadwork is one of the oldest forms of craft on the continent and a key part of African heritage

The tug-of-war between maintaining traditional cultural practices while living in an ever-shifting world invites modern craftsmen and women to think of ways of harmoniously merging these two spheres. In beadwork around the continent, each bead is encoded with a history that points to ancient African knowledge systems, visual messages and motifs passed down through lineages.

Beadwork dates back centuries, with organic materials such as ivory, cowrie shells and stones being among the first iterations. As early as the 4th century BC, glass beads were considered economic currency and moved between Africa, the Middle East and Europe as part of trade networks. They were also seen as social currency, playing a crucial role in the practice of dowries and the purchasing of cattle, and acted as a means of communication between different lineages, clans and social statuses. As many cultures and rituals evolved to fit into a contemporary lifestyle, the art of beadwork remains an integral part of cultural and artistic expression today, although its symbolism is no longer experienced as literally as it was in bygone eras.

Dancing maces (iivoti) by an unknown Xhosa artist.

Ndebele crafters, especially in the northern region of South Africa, are still master beaders creating jewellery, ornaments and other objects. One of the most common items they produce is the traditional Nyonga apron, which dates back to the 20th century, when it was worn primarily by married women. Modern examples of these include the isiphephetu, which is worn by unmarried young women who’ve been through traditional rites of passage, and the amajogolo, which are worn by married women. Made using a loom technique, the patterns and colours in these garments mirror those found on traditional Ndebele homes. However, their symbolism has been submerged in commercialisation, thanks to the growth in SA’s tourism sector and the emergence of souvenir curio shops.

Many contemporary artists and designers collaborating with beadmakers are doing so in a way that not only keeps this historic practice alive, but offers insight into a process sometimes considered inferior to Western art forms. For Bedoo founder Nondumiso Qba Nkosi, being raised in an Ndebele and Swati family with a rich cultural environment exposed her to the crafts of her ancestors, and today she draws on her current surroundings and community for inspiration. ‘Beads are a way of life for us. They’re like theface of African heritage,’ she says. Her work producing handcrafted beaded headgear worn by the likes of musician Thandiswa Mazwai has shown her the increased value being placed on the craft, as some of her bedoos take up to 60 hours to create. ‘It’s very important to pass down the practice or it will die out and the knowledge will be lost. Africa’s experienced a lot of that,’ she says.

Collar (ithumbu) by an unknown Thembu artist.

In the Eastern Cape, beadmaking has been practised since the Mfengu tribe began trading beads from Europe in the 1820s, after which they made their own versions that they traded across Africa. The making and adornment of these beads were assigned spiritual meaning: for example, the colour white holds a ‘higher power’ value and is a symbol of individuals in a state of liminality or transition, such as brides, initiates and sangomas.

For knitwear designer Laduma Ngxokolo of MaXhosa by Laduma, the art of traditional handcraft lies at the core of his work, which sees him taking Xhosa motifs found in beadwork and modifying them into modern versions. Over the years, he’s collaborated with beadworkers in his home base in the Eastern Cape, crafting – among other things – a special collection dedicated to his late mother, entitled My Heritage, My Inheritance. ‘I want to create contemporary art pieces that are tied to our identity. Beadwork is highly marginalised, but is one of a few select crafts that truly involve an acquired skill,’ he says. ‘I believe in craft and I protect it in many ways, one of which is the preserving of craft through design.’

Vest (uvetboyi/umgangxo) by an unknown Xhosa artist.

When Cape Town-based designer Gillian Fuller connected with a skilled beader at Design Indaba, it led to a reinterpretation of her paintings into a beadwork range that includes bracelets, chokers and panels. The project took off and she now has about 300 designs, including an exclusive range for the Zeitz MOCAA shop in Cape Town and one for NEO Boutique at One&Only hotels. ‘This endeavour has led to the development of a new skill for the beaders and has added a new dimension to the age-old craft of beading,’ she says. ‘This dimension is taking beadwork further into the realm of high-end design and fashion.’ Fuller believes that preserving traditional art and craft techniques like beadwork in a modern world is more important than ever because it balances a mass-produced world with handmade design.

As traditional crafts continue to gain stylistic relevance, their symbolic meaning may diminish further unless the stories are passed down along with their techniques. This is an important consideration in purposeful product distribution, at the heart of which lies paying ongoing homage to the ancestors and South African heritage.

Words: Ntombenhle Shezi & Sitha Kentane Images: Rob Duker, Michael Sheehan, Hayden Phipps *All traditional beaded pieces pictured formed part of Ubuhle Bentsimbi: The Beauty of Beads, 2010, at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan Art Museum in Port Elizabeth.