Introduction to African Beaded Art

For centuries adornment with beads has been an important means of personal and social identity in African cultures.  Archaeological excavations on the African continent have revealed the use of a variety of materials for beads dating as early as the Neolithic period.  But from the sixteenth through the twentieth centuries, when sub-Saharan Africa was caught up in the struggle of world economic and political powers, glass beads arrived from Europe and India and became incorporated as a new medium in African art.  The story of this imported material is one inextricably linked with colonialism and with the arrival of traders, missionaries, explorers, and military personnel.  As new markets and trade opened, and Europeans competed with Indian beadmakers for control of the lucrative African market, imported beads were carried to coastal ports and then by African traders across the continent.  With the influx of glass beads in great quantities, African artists created works of startling beauty, color, and complexity.

This exhibition and its catalogue examine how the peoples of sub-Saharan Africa responded to imported beads, both in aesthetic terms and in the ways beads reflected their changing social and political situation in the nineteenth and first half of the twentieth century.  It specifically challenges uncritical assumptions that African art is essentially—or only—sculptural.

Beaded art was used for dramatically different purposes by peoples in West, Central, and Southeast Africa as they responded to the importation of glass beads from Europe and other outside sources: the Yoruba of southwestern Nigeria; the Bamum and Bamileke peoples of the Cameroon Grasslands; the Kuba, with reference also to the Luba, Yaka, and Pende peoples of the Kasai region of the Congo; and the North Nguni (Zulu-speaking), South Nguni (Xhosa-speaking), and Ndebele peoples of Southeast Africa.  For groups in West and Central Africa, beaded art expressed an aesthetic of royal grandeur associated with political and religious structures, while adornment with beads was closely related to group and individual identity as well as to gender and social status for Southeast African peoples.  The artists responsible for the visually stunning beaded works in the galleries are all unknown.

John Pemberton III, SCMA’s curatorial consultant for African art and Professor Emeritus, Amherst College, served as the curator of the exhibition and the author of its catalogue.  The Museum gratefully acknowledges the lenders to the exhibition and the funding agencies and individuals who have made this project possible.

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