South African bead art

Beads have long been a part of South African art. They are the traditional materials for many art forms from local tribes, going back hundreds of years. They play a significant role in the traditions of tribes like the baSotho, amaXhosa, baVenda, amaNdebele, and the amaZulu. Just like the rainbow nation itself, beads in South African art are always in a variety of bright colours. Go to any tourist attraction or curio shop and you will find jewellery and other artefacts for sale. These items are always very popular with visitors from around the world.

Traditional bead arts and crafts
Beads were the insignia of royalty. The artefacts made during centuries gone by are now extremely rare and can only be found in museums. These items are considered as fine art. The beaded artefacts of today have now become a part of a broader meaning, not just for royalty. An example would be the Zulu beaded love letters, where small pieces of jewellery are created to express certain amorous feelings. These can be found as key rings or broaches in many shops around the country.

Beadwork costumes, headdresses and other traditional items are still created today for special ceremonies and celebrations like weddings. They have significant meaning. They are also used in rites of passage, when children grow into adulthood.

Painting with beads – a new art style
According to the website of the Smithsonian Museum, a new form of art is emerging in South Africa. Artists are using beads to create paintings, where each different coloured bead is used as a drop of paint would be used in traditional painting. These paintings have been created a small community of women on a former sugar plantation near Durban in Kwa Zulu-Natal. This little community of artiusts was started in 1999 and an exhibition was launched of their work called Ubuhle Women: Beadwork and the Art of Independence. The word “ubuhle” means “beauty” in Xhosa. The community was founded by Bev Gibson and Ntombephi “Induna” Ntobela.

The artworks are created by beading panels of cloth. These pieces can take up to 10 months to complete. The women of the community go about their regular days, looking after their families, cooking and chopping wood, but in between, they work on their beading. The pieces, called ndwangos, are commissioned. Each piece tells a story and shows a little bit from the lives of the artists. The scenes include rolling blue waves of the sea, thunderous clouds and skies filled with stars. Their work is incredibly beautiful, and marks the start of a whole new art style.