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What’s with all the beads?

If you’ve ever been to Africa or even seen pictures of an African safari holiday then you will have seen fabulous eye-catching African beading. No matter where you go in Africa east, west or south beading is everywhere. The life-sized beaded elephant at the Johannesburg airport advertising the local drink, Amarula is just the start. You’ll see Masai women in huge neck collars and armfuls of bracelets, leather armbands and belts sown with traditional beaded patterns and every type of beaded animal you can imagine being sold on the side of the road. The fascination and love of beading is widespread across Africa. Spend time there and you are bound to be infected, and take at least one beaded something home in your hand luggage.

African beading; Animals, necklaces

Beaded hippo, Masai beaded jewellery, beaded leopard

History

Beads and beading date back to the earliest African cultures, some say as far back as 10,000BC. Beads had all sorts of uses; currency, spirituality, burial rites, health and adornment are a few. In many areas beads were only worn by royalty to show their status, and maybe this contributes to Africa’s love of beads today. Beads have always been particularly important in female traditions with waist beads having been worn in many cultures as signs of femininity and fertility. The most common materials used were things that were easily available; stone, horn, bone, and wood, and for the more important beads metals and amber were also used.

Beads made of brass, amber and metal alloys

Beads made of brass, amber and metal alloys

These days old beaded items are highly prized by collectors and are increasingly rare. Often they are only available through specialist dealers who spend a lot of their time sourcing older items from across Africa and then hold a sale once or twice a year.

 Modern Life

Beads and beading are still incredibly important in modern African society with many traditional uses still relevant and lots of new ones. Traditional elaborate costumes are still created for wedding ceremonies and some of the outfits that brides wear are astounding. Women still wear beaded jewellery as a sign of status and to enhance their beauty. As you travel through Africa you’ll see many women wearing beads as part of their everyday dress. In fact some of the beaded pieces look so large and cumbersome you’d wonder how anyone can wear them for an hour let alone a whole day. But it’s that kind of deep, daily connection to beadwork that remains in many African cultures.

Beaded wedding outfits and a Samburu lady in special occassion beading

Beaded wedding outfits and a Samburu lady in special occasion beading

Over time the materials used have changed with many of the beads used in traditional work now coming from the Czech Republic, Poland, China and India. Often they are made of glass – hence the bright colours and high shine, but traditional materials of bone, horn and metals are also still widely used. Although the beads often come from other countries the patterning and beading construction are still done in Africa using traditional designs and methods. Beading can range from simple to highly complex with the complex work done by highly skilled and much in demand artisans.

Modern African beading has widened its appeal to now include souvenirs for tourists and to raise awareness for causes. The bright vibrant colours and detailed handmade work means pieces are eye-catching and unusual. Roadside stalls and traditional markets sell beaded works of all kinds and styles, from small keyring animals to life-sized works which are incredibly beautiful and highly detailed.

Modern beading is used in belts, bags and bangles all hand beaded by skilled artisans

Modern beading is used in belts, bags and bangles – all hand beaded by skilled artisans

Beading in luxury goods

The vibrancy and beauty of African beading has also drawn attention from modern luxury designers. African made luxury goods are increasingly incorporating beading into their high end pieces displayed and sold through Africa and the West. Luxury goods require a high standard of quality that can only be met and maintained by skilled artisans to create the pieces. One of the more difficult challenges of this craft is to find and retain these artisans. Many of the highly skilled beaders are older ladies and the challenge is to find young people who want to learn this traditional craft rather than take jobs in modern occupations.

Collane Di Betta pieces and the ladies who bead them in the Nairobi workshop. Henriette Botha beaded collar.

Collane Di Betta pieces and the ladies who bead them in the Nairobi workshop. Henriette Botha beaded collar.

As one of the most recognizable and beautiful arts in Africa beading retains its place of importance in modern African society. Items incorporating this highly skilled and striking art form are still relatively rare in the west, but as interest grows and skills become more and more in demand this art form will be on the path to a secure future.


If you interested to find more out about beading in African culture Rukariro Katsande’s article on the Wilderness Safari’s website is a great place to start. 

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