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Finding Beads in Paradise: African Beaded Art at the Smith College Museum of Art

By Sara Barz ’06

Wandering among the display cases of beaded artifacts in African Beaded Art: Power and Adornment on view at the Smith College Museum of Art (on display through June 15), one cannot help but notice other visitors’ hushed exclamations of approval and surprise.

“These necklaces are gorgeous.”

“Look at all the beads on this veil -- that must have taken forever to make.”

“There’s an airplane on that apron!”

Bamum peoples, Cameroon. Elephant Stool, 19th century. Glass beads, wood, cloth. The Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago (175558b). Photograph © 2007 The Field Museum, A114557_10d. Photograph by John Weinstein.

A major loan exhibition for SCMA, Power and Adornment features 150 beaded artifacts lent by 13 major museums and more than 20 private lenders. “We’re very excited to present this groundbreaking exhibition,” says Jessica Nicoll, SCMA director and chief curator. “We received highly competitive grants from Art Mentor Foundation Lucerne and the National Endowment for the Arts to exhibit this extraordinary work and share new research. In addition to the tremendous outpouring from the museum’s supporters and lenders, these grants are truly a seal of approval that we’re doing something important.” Indeed the SCMA is the sole venue for this show.

Beaded objects and artifacts from across the country, from the Fowler Museum at the University of California, Los Angeles, to the Mead Art Museum at Amherst College were collected to present new research into the tradition of African beadwork.

“When we think of African art we tend to think of sculpture,” says John “Jack” Pemberton III, guest curator of the exhibition and the museum curatorial consultant for African Art. Standing next to a small bronze statue of an oba (king) from 17th to 18th century Benin, Pemberton leans in to demonstrate. “However, as you see with this bronze, the sculptor has meticulously included the beadwork on all the regalia. The beadwork itself is important enough to be recorded in the statue.”

Pemberton motions to a display that features a 19th-century beaded “adenla” or veiled conical crown awash with Matisse-like color, created by an artist of the Yoruba peoples of Western Africa. “This is a new way to look at African art,” he adds. “These pieces challenge the assumption that African art is purely sculptural.” Pemberton is one of the first scholars to recognize and study beaded objects as works of art, not as crafts.

While Power and Adornment does feature some pieces from pre-colonial Africa, the exhibition focuses on the response of African artists to the glass beads brought to the continent by European and other traders from the 16th through the 20th centuries. In addition to a section on historical context and precedents, Power and Adornment is divided into four sections by cultural groups within geographical areas: the Yoruba peoples of Nigeria; the Bamum and Bamileke peoples of the Cameroon Grasslands of West Africa; the Kuba peoples and neighboring groups in the Kasai Region of Central Africa; and the North and South Nguni peoples as well as the Ndebele peoples of the Southeast Cape Region of South Africa.

Fresh from a fellowship at Oxford, Pemberton began his research in African art while working with the Yoruba peoples in the 1970s. The art and culture of the Yoruba have been his particular area of research since that time, and Pemberton is considered one of the world’s experts in the field. Thus both the exhibition and his gallery tour begin with Yoruba artifacts.

“The crowns conferred sacredness upon the oba. They weren’t seen as accessories the way Western cultures think of them.” Pemberton indicates patterns of human faces that adorn the beaded crowns. “These faces represent two ideas: one is that the oba sees all, and two, that these faces represent all the oba that came before. With these crowns, the beaded faces were more important than that of the wearer.”

Top: Kuba peoples, Democratic Republic of the Congo. Yet (Belt), 20th century. Glass beads, shells, cowries, metal, leather, fiber, cotton thread. Private Collection. Photograph by Austin Kennedy. Bottom: Bamileke peoples, Cameroon. Leopard Crest, 19th century. Glass beads, dried banana leaves, raffia splints and cloth. The Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago (174144). Photograph © 2007 The Field Museum, A114559_02d. Photograph by John Weinstein.

Pemberton, who also wrote the exhibition catalogue, speaks with as much detail as the gallery texts and labels, and gestures with an enthusiasm to match that. “The birds perched on the top,” he points to an imaginary crown floating above his head, “they represent ‘the mothers’ or ‘women.’ In Yoruba regalia, the signs and representations of birds observe respect for the power of women. When a new oba was crowned, the senior wife, or sometimes the most senior servant, would have the responsibility to place the crown on his head.”

The peoples of Western and Central Africa used beaded artistry primarily to signify the power of the political and religious elite. “The Bamum of the Cameroon Grasslands are a village people with a great sculptural tradition,” mentions Pemberton as he heads toward a display featuring stools whose seats are supported by house-cat sized elephant and leopard sculptures. “But all the royal regalia, such as these palace stools, were completely covered with beads.”

According to Pemberton, because the peoples of Southeastern Africa had to contend with colonialism that diluted or destroyed indigenous social structures, beadwork became “a form of personal adornment that represented social status or reflected the changing elements of the outside world.”

The Ndbele peoples especially began to incorporate modern themes into their 20th-century beadwork. One item, a “pepetu” or a child’s apron, beaded in traditional dark purples, greens, and blues, features both a side and front view of a Boeing 747.

“This particular exhibition has been in the works for at least two and a half years. It has flourished from both the dedication of the Senior Curator Linda Muehlig and Jack’s scholarship,” explains Nicoll.

Since the museum reopened in 2003 following the renovation and expansion of the fine arts center, its exhibition roster and programs have prominently featured non-Western art alongside its rich holdings in European and American art. This diversification, a goal of the museum’s five-year strategic plan, reflects efforts to broaden its focus and support the more global curriculum of the college. This exhibition follows such others as Fashioning Tradition: Japanese Tea Wares from the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries and Visual Poetry: Paintings and Drawings From Iran.

Visit the Smith College Museum of Art Web site for more: www.smith.edu/artmuseum/exhibitions/africanbeadedart

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