South African Beadwork

South African beadwork is on e of the most treasured artistic heritage of the country. Beadwork, full of vivid pattern and color, is one of the most compelling art forms there. This tradition has survived to the modern day, despite disappearance of much of their other cultural traditions due to Western influence.

For South African natives, beadwork performs many functions. While it’s most common function is adornment, beadworks of various patterns and colors also symbolize group identity and signals the age, marital status, social rank and spiritual state of various members of native South African societies. The patterns, colors and motifs of South African beadwork have meanings attached to them, and form a symbolic language. A story can be narrated just by using different color beads.

The credit of preserving South African beadwork as a thriving living tradition against the onslaught of westerners goes to mainly two South African tribes, the Zulus and the Xhosa.

The Zulu tribe, the largest and a very strong tribe whose traditions have survived to modern day, is known for beautiful beadwork. Beads were so highly valued by them, that often their chief claimed trade in beads as his personal privilege. Beadworks adorn traditional married woman's hat and different types of capes, cloaks, belts, and aprons are worn by Zulu men and women. Despite the pressures of modernization, spearheaded by missionaries, beadwork has been kept alive, especially in far-flung rural communities. Modern tourism has been of considerable help in preserving South African beadwork. It has increased demand for beadwork and provided opportunities to young women living in villages to learn beadwork and earn a living making them. Items meant for tourists are sometimes worn by the tribal people themselves, a continuation of the acculturation process that occurs whenever two peoples come into contact.

Xhosa is the second largest tribal group in South Africa. Xhosa beadwork has been recorded as early as the 1820s. Being expensive, beads were used to distinguish the wealthy from the mass of Xhosa society. South African beadwork came to represent a woman's dowry. Uniquely, it is Xhosa men who amass and wear beadwork made by female admirers. Their beaded openwork bib collars look like lace. Xhosa are notable for their headdresses made from thousands of white beads, some of them supporting dense drapes of single strands of beads.

White is the predominant color in Xhosa beadwork and has always been closely identified with the culture. The pieces have the feeling of fabric and drape around the body. Openwork designs enable the creation of an article that covers a considerable area using a relatively small number of beads. The most typical beaded object is a tobacco bag, worn draped over one shoulder.

Tourism has forced some unwelcome changes. Today plastic beads, which last less, are replacing glass beads. Women, however, prefer plastic beads since they are cheaper, and lighter and comfortable to wear.

Under the impact of modernization, the art of South African beadwork is dying out. The prognosis is bad, unless something special is done about it. 

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