In Africa, beads have transformed and elevated the ordinary while conveying status, access and prestige to both the wearer and the crafter.
Throughout the centuries, African artists have created intimate, beautiful works of art that are integral to social and spiritual life. Many of these pieces are encrusted, woven or threaded with beads made from a vast array of materials.
Using these small, decorative, spherical objects, artists have communicated messages about identity, politics, religion and social culture.
Determining the source of beads found in Africa is a hugely extensive research field and there are many publications one can read through, not all them being irrefutably proven given the nature of the task at hand. But one thing is for sure, beads unearthed in Africa can give us a feel for the movement of trade and people across continents and across seas.
Beads were first made thousands of years ago from organic materials such as bones, shells and seeds, horns, teeth, quills and stone. Beads and organic objects were, and still are in some tribal areas, assembled and strung together on muscle fibre, leather cord, animal hair, cotton or gut.
Ostrich eggshell necklaces were some of the earliest forms of jewelry and while most of the ancient beads such as these seen below from an archaeological dig, do not survive today, they are not dissimilar to the various beaded items of 19th C Namibian and San tribes of Southern Africa.
Eggshell jewelry crucially illustrates how and when humans begun to modify natural shapes into a variety of forms for both practical and aesthetic purposes.
The earliest tangible evidence of land links and connections between Southern Zambesia, the East coast of Africa and the Indian Ocean world comes primarily from the discovery of glass beads belonging to the Zhizo period (AD 600-900) at sites in Chibuene, southern Mozambique, Makuru, central Zimbabwe and Schroda in the Limpopo valley. Some Zhizo beads were also found in north eastern Botswana on the edge of the Kalahari Desert.
These soda-lime, silica glass beads were not only spherical but were also tubular, cylindrical, oblate or barrel shaped and most likely came from Mesopotamia, the Euphrates and Tigris River systems of Western Asia. Later they appeared from India and South and Central Asia.
Some of the first, imported powder-glass beads appeared at excavations in Mapungubwe in the southern region of South Africa, dating from 970 to 1000AD and Great Zimbabwe has recorded excavated beads which date from the 11th C and are macroscopically indistinguishable from Mapungubwe types.
After this Khami beads were used and these were followed by Portuguese-period glass beads which lasted until colonisation in the 19th C. For further details from this source, read here
Very recently, the analysis of glass beads found at a Nigerian site at Igbo Olokun has revealed that a unique, sub-Saharan glass production industry existed prior to the arrival of foreign traders in the early 16th C. Archaeological investigations since 2010 have revealed the existence of the first known W African primary glass-making workshop dating to early 2nd millennium CE which supplied glass beads for the regional trade network.
Researchers are confident beyond doubt that the groups of glass found represent a glass produced in early Ile-Ife using local recipes, raw materials and technology.
Evidence of glass bead production is found in these notable areas of today such as Ghana, the Krobo and Ethiopia. Ground particles are compacted prior to firing... a painstakingly slow process known as wet-core production.
By the mid 16th Century, a wide variety of glass beads were being made in Europe.
Africans traded ivory, gold and slaves for these beads and they were introduced all over the continent as currency. Africa's golden trade Era stretches from 1700 to 1920 reflecting the highest levels of trade and economy.
The number of people involved in this trade from so many different countries makes it very hard to establish the provenance of the found beads or strands, but dealer catalogue cards produced by European bead trading companies in the mid 19th C to early 20th C, can help date and locate the source of the beads.
For centuries African beadwork has played an important role in defining social status and heirarchy. Beads have been used in their 1000's to create artistic and impactful designs on all nature of things. Many of these beading creations have come to identify the social and ethnic groups who make them, as well as the life stages of the individuals.
African beaded items have been used to celebrate and symbolize womanhood, sexuality, femininity, fertility, healing, spirituality, menstruation, wealth, seduction and marriage. They are also insignias of power and status and are emblems of the political, social and religious complexity that can exists within some African societies. Such as this magnificently preserved piece featured below....
Within the different societies, particular rules applied to various individuals within that community. An example of this is by status, is the Kuba tribe whereby only the King and his immediate family can wear a belt holding multiple small pendants covered with beads and cowries. This one below has 23 pendants, the large shells bearing testament to the king's control over long distance trade routes.
The beaded headdress (Adenla) featured below on the left was commissioned in the mid 19th Century by a Yoruba king, Oba Edun of Okuku to celebrate his reign. The artist is unknown but the piece is made of beads, cloth and wood and fully exhibits his talent and his creative response to working with beads to embellish the conical crown worn by the king on ritual occasions.
Coral beads from the Mediterranean Sea have a special place in African bead history. Towards the end of the 15th C coral beads constituted one of the principal commodities being traded with the Kingdom of Benin in present-day Nigeria. All coral beads were the property of the king or oba who had the sole right to distribute them where he saw fit.
The oba was permitted to wear a complete costume of coral beads; crown, collar, robe... even shoes. Decorating and enhancing the body, they also portrayed a symbol of power and wealth.
On a more serious note, some of this attire is steeped in meaning and history and has great societal function and value. The practice of wearing beaded garments helps to regulate behavior between genders. For example, once married, a young woman is entitled to wear a beaded blanket cape called a 'Ngurara' probably handed down from a grandmother... and an 'Isiphephetu' is a beaded apron worn by adolescent girls symbolizing her journey from childhood to adulthood.
One particularly interesting accessory is a beaded belt known as an 'umutsha'. Both sexes can wear one although they are traditionally made by women who create belts for their whole family. The main body of the belt is leather or cloth but it covered with beads in all sorts of patterns, colours and designs.
With the introduction and exposure of European style art for art's sake, African artist began to experiment with painting in different media. Art moved from a level of craft to a practice that would expand the horizons of some artists.
Jimoh Buraimoh is a contemporary Nigerian artist, one of the original graduates of the 1960's experimental workshops known as the Oshogbo School of Art where he learnt printmaking and mosaics before moving on to beaded paintings.
These works are reminiscent of the fully beaded Yoruba cloaks, crowns and stools. Buraimoh expressed a fascination with these crowns, with their "shimmering colors, designs and patterns" and above all their grandeur.
Beads are string on to cotton threads and then glued to the surface of aboard, creating raised surfaces and an illusion of depth when placed compactly sidebar side.
Buraimoh's artwork is in collections all over the world both private and public and often come up on auction being one of Africa's pioneering contemporary artists. He has achieved many awards of excellence and is also a dedicated teacher, involving himself with many projects in all sorts of countries, places and institutions like October Gallery in London and Atlanta's airport in the USA.