Africans have always used beads to embellish the everyday and the unique objects in their lives. Egg shell, seeds, bone and ivory were used before glass beads began to be imported from India over 2,000 years ago. It wasn't until the early 1800's, however, when imported European glass beads were traded in huge quantites that the art of beadwork really took off.
In the Bristol collections we have a range of objects decorated with beads from across many African countries. However the largest group of material comes from the tribal groups in and around South Africa. Much of the beadwork from the Zulu, Xhosa, Ndebele and Sotha peoples was collected during the late 19th and 20th centuries, with a few pieces from more recent makers highlighting the contemporary issues of AIDS and its effects on local communities.
The colour, style and patterns in beadwork can be used to convey messages about the maker or its owner. They can be messages to a loved one, they can tell you if a woman is married or has a child, they can mark you out as a great warrior or leader. Today they are still worn in large quantities to show your staus or wealth or they can be hung in art galleries displaying their beauty and technical skill.
IMAGE: hand painted glass slide of the wife of a South African Chief, 1905.