Article: Beadwork in the Arts of Africa and Beyond

 

What exactly are beads?

Beads are most often small and spherical, made from materials that are desirable because of qualities such as color, shine, or rarity. By definition, beads are pierced with a hole so that they may be strung together or attached to a surface through various techniques, and they are some of the first decorative objects made by man: archaeologists working in the Blombos cave in South Africa recently uncovered forty-one marine shell (Nassarius kraussianus) beads made approximately seventy-five thousand years ago.

The study of these small and precious objects provides a fascinating glimpse into the history of global trade, reminding us that people of different ages, places, and cultures may hold precisely the same objects dear. While this article primarily examines the use of glass beads in African art, it recognises beads as a global medium of expression used for millennia, and therefore draws on objects from across The Metropolitan Museum of Art collection to further our understanding.

Beads made from glass have served as a basic item of trade since ancient times, and in the sixteenth century the circulation of glass beads grew exponentially with the development of world trade. The intrinsic desirability of the bead—as well as the ease with which a relatively large quantity could be transported as cargo—made them an essential item of trade. As these beads became an ever more popular commodity, the tiny island of Murano—located about one mile north of Venice, Italy—developed into the global capital of glass-bead manufacture. By 1606 there were 251 bead-making firms recorded in Murano alone, and Venetian glassmakers are thought to have made some one hundred thousand different varieties of bead types and designs for global export.

To read the full article by James Green and see some fabulous beadwork click here

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Exhibition: Worlds on a String – Beads, Journeys, Inspirations

Textile Museum, Canada - Worlds on a String

Exhibition dates: 15 June – 23 October 2016

Universal materials of communication, ornamentation and ritual, glass beads offer extraordinary insight into worlds and world views – microcosms of meaning and symbolism. Cherished around the world, the shared passion for these luminous, kaleidoscopic treasures has sparked global trade, drawing ships across oceans. Media of exchange, currency, identity and status, their language offers unique insight into global trajectories of influence and innovation. Worlds on a String explores beads and beaded objects across time and cultures, a story of journeys and inspirations that speaks to how, through centuries, the bead has informed economic and political relationships, shaping cultural and creative imagination.

With a size that belies their potency, the wide-reaching distribution of glass beads was transformative – a compelling force of cultural impact and political influence. The earliest glass beads were produced in India in 200 BC, and exported to countries along major trade routes to Africa and Asia. From the sixteenth century onwards, beads manufactured in Europe made their way throughout the world, extending colonial relationships, complementing rather than replacing indigenous practices. As artists skillfully merged tradition with innovation, bead-making cultures flourished in response to this new form with a spectrum of visual brilliance and technical innovation that would ultimately influence Europe in return, from popular domestic crafts to haute couture.

Worlds on a String brings together stunning examples of vibrant beadwork from Africa, Asia, the Americas, Oceania and Europe, and explores the process through which beading practices have evolved, echoing and absorbing changing social and political circumstances as this popular new material inflected cultural perspectives and creative practices. The popularity of beads has never waned, their forms and meanings transforming constantly. Today artists continue to work in this compelling art form as a vehicle for creativity and self-expression, as well as strategies of cultural resistance and economic resilience. Worlds on a String includes work by contemporary artists from the Ubuhle community in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa as well as Canadian indigenous art – work that speaks to the significance of glass beads in the ongoing reimagination and reinvention of global traditions and social enterprise.

For more information, visit the website of the Textile Museum of Canada, Toronto, Canada.