North Nguni, South Nguni, Ndebele Peoples: Southeast Cape Region, South Africa

Arab traders brought stone and glass beads from India to the east coast of Africa as early as the sixth century BCE.  By the tenth century CE, iron implements and glass beads of a more sophisticated manufacture from India, along with other materials, were being traded for ivory and gold.  Portuguese ships arrived on the east coast at Delagoa Bay as early as 1516.  The Dutch, following in the mid-seventeenth century, established the port of Cape Town in South Africa.  With the arrival of British traders in the nineteenth century, the “bead rush” began, and the Arab trade for the most part ended.  By the mid-nineteenth century the British had established the ports of Natal and East London. Along with Delagoa Bay, Cape Town, and King William’s Town, they became centers of trade and a commercial middle class.  From there missionaries, itinerant traders, and farmers proceeded to move inland to preach, barter, and plant the seeds of European culture.

While the use of glass beads was largely the privilege of the political and religious elite in West and Central Africa, they were widely available among Southeast Cape peoples.  Hence, they were used in the creation of items of personal adornment identifying age, social status, and movement of a person through stages of life. They were also a significant means of communication in relationships between men and women. 

Among the North Nguni (Zulu-speaking) peoples, beadwork is striking for its juxtaposition of bold colors in the creation of strong geometric designs and in the use of seed beads.  Early beadwork suggests a preference for black, dark blue, and red.  It is an aesthetic of intensity of design and color, at times articulated with a delicate severity. Most of these observations apply as well to beaded art of the South Nguni (Xhosa-speaking) peoples.  However, by the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the South Nguni seem to have preferred beads in softer shades of blue and pink and light green with touches of black and white.

As with other Nguni peoples, beaded art was worn by all members of Ndebele society, including children. Beadworking and mural painting remain the most important visual means to express cultural identity among the Ndebele, incorporating strong geometric designs with abstract forms of objects from daily life, which today include recognizable modern motifs such as planes and television antennas. Women remain the principal bead and mural artists. The elaborately beaded bridal ensembles in the exhibition show the aesthetic imagination and skill of the women who created these garments for a young woman about to enter the responsibilities of marriage.

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