African bead art masters and their lasting legacy

Beloved Beads

By Gretta Louw

On a recent trip to Zurich, I chanced upon an exhibition of African beadwork at the Rietberg Museum. Growing up in and out of South Africa, I've experienced the brilliance and ingenuity of African bead artists my whole life, so I was intrigued to see how a European museum would frame the work. Museums are never neutral. Each piece that's selected for elevation to "museum-worthiness" represents a particular worldview; a specific way of appreciating one artform or cultural viewpoint over another. And art from Africa has, in the context of the colonial legacy of the European museum system, typically been either ignored or minimized as folk art. Encouragingly, the exhibition at Rietberg Museum is a step in the right direction. Bead Art from Africa: The Mottas Collection presents a stunning assembly of beaded artworks from an incredible range of artists and cultural contexts spanning two centuries—and does so in a way that is suitably respectful to the heritage of each piece.

The Rietberg Museum sits atop a steep hill in the Rieterpark near the north-western tip of Lake Zurich. The climb is worth it for the views alone—but also for the museum, of course, with its global exhibitions covering material culture from Asia, Africa, the Americas, and Oceania. It’s the only museum in Switzerland that focuses on non-European art and design and comprises several buildings. The main one is the impressive, neo-classical Villa Wesendonck, which now sits charmingly, if incongruously, opposite the jewel-like, facetted glass entrance to the ‘Smaragd’; a largely subterranean addition completed in 2007 by architects Alfred Grazioli and Adolf Krischanitz that doubled the museum’s exhibition space. After the visual extravagance of the vistas and the unusual architecture outside, the gallery spaces below provide a pleasing counterpoint; a controlled interior, without distractions, in which to contemplate the presented work.

The pieces in Bead Art from Africa are breathtaking, from geometric Xhosa beaded collars to the more delicate, red Maasai neckpieces and a stunning horned mask from Cameroon adorned with blue and red beads and white shells. Picasso eat your heart out! The exhibition guides viewers through the distinct stylistic patterns and color-palettes that differentiated cultural groups and encoded complex messages about identity, status, and gender; illuminating how beadwork was as much about innovation as tradition while illucidating the history of glass bead trade between Europe and Africa. A highlight of the exhibition is the gorgeous beaded fringe trade route map—made of a staggering 348,000 beads—by contemporary South African designers Anna Richerby and Laurence Kapinga Tshimpaka from Cape Town-based brand Beloved Beads.

Bead samples used in bead trade last century Photo © Museum Rietberg
As early as the 17th century, glass beads were being manufactured in Murano, Amsterdam and Bohemia (now the Czech Republic) specifically for the African markets. The economic potential of the bead trade inevitably led to cultural exchange and a cross-pollination of aesthetics from Africa to Europe, the results of which can be seen littered throughout Impressionist, Cubist, and modernist art.

The legacy of African beadwork on European design is rarely acknowledged, but evidence of its influence is abundant throughout the last century and up to today. Superstar designers the Haas Brothers collaborated with South African contemporary beading company Monkeybiz to create the Afreaks (2015) collection of wonderfully weird sculptural objets d’art. Prague-based Studio deFORM have used tonal collections of glass beads to form the surfaces of the Beads Tables. Italian designer Serena Confalonieri has directly assimilated Maasai compositional forms into her Masai Collection [sic]. The Forbidden Fruit collection of hanging ceiling lamps by Glimpt for the South African Potters Workshop plays with proportion using hand-painted ceramic and wooden ‘beads’ created in partnership with South African artisans.

Sefefo Dining Set by Patricia Urquiola for Mabeo Photo © Mabeo
Contemporary African designers, meanwhile, are of course also carrying the aesthetic legacy of bead art forwards in their practices. Atang Tshikare, South African artist and designer represented by tour de force on the African design scene Southern Guild, is a name that all contemporary design lovers should know. His stunningly crafted and aesthetically rich pieces often employ beading techniques; the wonderfully corporeal Ithjebe Lamp is constructed of jacaranda wood and Zimbabwean woven water reeds, embellished with wooden beads that give the impression of organic growth. Acclaimed Botswanan studio Mabeo takes a more minimalist approach, but some of the textures and palettes of pieces like the Embi Cabinet (2015) or Sefefo (2014) series of tables and stools—a collaboration with design celeb Patricia Urquiola—retain an echo of the stylistic devices invented by bead artists. And if you’re looking for even more talent from the continent, check out the work of Nigerian designer Funfere Koroye who is poised to make an international splash with his range of seating combining powder-coated steel and traditionally woven rattan cane.

You’ll have to rush to catch Bead Art From Africa at Rietberg, it closes on October 21, but luckily there’s plenty more ways to explore the legacy of this incredible artform.

  • Text by

    • Gretta Louw

      Gretta Louw

      A South-African born Australian currently based in Germany, Gretta is a globetrotting multi-disciplinary artist and language lover. She holds a degree in Psychology, and has seriously avant garde leanings.

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