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SOUTH-EAST AFRICAN BEADWORK (article first published : 2003-07-4)

The Durban Art Gallery is hosting an exhibition entitled South-East African Beadwork Adornment|Artefact|Art.

This exhibition of beadwork, based on the collection of art dealers Michael Stevenson and Michael Graham-Stewart, hails from the Eastern regions of Southern Africa and clearly demonstrates the skill and artistry of the women responsible for these works of art.

The collection showcases works dating from 1850 to 1910 and focuses on pieces made by the women of the Zulu Kingdom and the Colony of Natal as well as examples from the Xhosa-speaking women of the Eastern Cape, the Sotho women of the Drakensberg and the Yao people of the Eastern Zambian region.

The exhibition delves into the history surrounding the origins of beadwork, the inherent symbolism of the various pieces, the changing status of an art form previously considered as mere craft as well as the underlying gender issues involved in the making and wearing of beadwork. The value attached to beads changed radically during the course of the 19th century. Where they were once the preserve of elite groups, they gradually assumed a host of new functions. Transformed into fashion items and used in courtship exchanges, their earlier importance in drawing attention to the status of chiefs and kings was irrevocably affected by the arrival of European traders.

Despite the evidence pointing to the role fashion played in the acquistion of particular beadwork colours, it has always been assumed that most beadwork styles give expression to some or other aspect of group identity. While this is undoubtedly relevant to a consideration of developments in the early 20th century, when successive white governments relied on ethnic designations to allocate land to South Africasıs black communities, it is also possible that similarly pragmatic concerns may have contributed to and sometimes even dictated, the developments of particular beadwork styles earlier on.

The exhibition runs until July 13.




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