Mbhali African Art.
|Royalty & Beads |
home to hundreds of tribes, all of which have a rich culture of traditional crafts and artifacts. In what is today South Africa,
one of the largest tribal groupings is the Nguni, and amongst the best known of these is the Zulu nation. Although they produce
many unique handcrafted items, the Zulu are best known for their intricate and often spectacular beadwork.
have been worn by the Zulu from ancient times, with the oldest examples being made of materials ranging from the bones or
the shell of an ostrich egg, to stones, seeds and metal. With the increasing level of urbanization amongst the Zulu, many
beaded items for everyday use are today made from plastic beads. However, the best quality modern Zulu beadwork is made almost
exclusively from glass beads (known as seed beads). Although these beads are not manufactured by the Zulu, their use has its
roots not in the European colonization of Africa, but in trade between ancient African nations.Glass beads appear to have
been a by-product of the discovery of glass, which is said to have occurred in Egypt during the rule of the pharaohs some
30 centuries ago. The Egyptians were favourably placed to trade with African peoples to the south, and were keen to acquire
the ivory, gold and slaves that were available further south.
Glass beads from Egypt, as well from other countries with
access to the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean, were transported by Phoenicians, a seafaring nation known to have circumnavigated
the Cape of Good Hope long before the Portuguese led by Bartolomeo Dias and Vasco Da Gama.
|Rural girls at King Shaka Day |
The Phoenician ships carried cargoes of glass beads
and other merchandise, and shipped them to every port along the North African coast and the ancient kingdoms of West and Central
Africa. The Arabs later emerged both as manufacturers of glass beads and as successors to the Phoenicians, continuing to supply
beads to the east coast of Africa and India. To this day, red cornelian beads of Indian origin are washed out along the shores
of the Transkei region in South Africa from ancient Arab vessels that fell victim to storms and sank. Camel caravans from
North Africa also crossed the Saharan desert to trade with the African kingdoms south of the Sahara. The Arab traders were
eventually ousted by the Portuguese in the 15th and 16th centuries, who were in turn succeeded by the Dutch and the British
who colonized Africa in the 17th and 18th centuries.It can thus be seen that the Zulu tradition of fine glass beadwork is
not a recent by-product of European colonization, as is commonly supposed, but part of a rich and ancient melting pot of African
cultures. Glass beads were valued in sub-Saharan Africa because they were the products of an exotic technology, of which the
equivalent was unknown in southern Africa at that time. Beads, therefore, became precious in their own right and were soon
linked to whatever was valued in the cultures of the people who owned and crafted them into a variety of objects to be worn
according to custom, as token of social status, political importance and for personal adornment.
Zulu Beads. What makes Zulu beadwork unique is the code by which particular colours
are selected and combined in various ways to create messages that are woven into decorative geometrical designs and shapes.
Both the colours and the shapes have particular meanings assigned to them, which makes it possible for a "love letter" (incwadi)
made entirely from beads to be sent to a sweetheart to express a range of emotions. Thus Zulu beadwork forms an intricate
system of communication which is devoted entirely to the expression of ideas, feelings and facts related to behaviour and
relations between the sexes. Zulu beadwork is designed and manufactured exclusively by women, but is worn by both sexes -
thus any beadwork worn by a man has been received from a woman. In this way, beaded items can be used to facilitate communication
between unrelated males and females, which avoids the discomfort of initiating direct discussion on the sensitive subject
of personal relations. Men usually wear beadwork to show involvement with women they may marry. This means that mothers, sisters
and daughters do not give their sons, brothers or fathers beaded gifts, owing to the incestuous implications of such gifts.
|Assorted Beads |
The "language" of Zulu beads is deceptively simple. It traditionally
utilizes one basic geometric figure, the triangle, and studies of the craft indicate that a maximum of seven colours is used.
To interpret the love letter, one must know how to interpret both the geometric and colour symbolism. As far as the geometric
symbolism is concerned, the three corners of the triangle represent the father, mother and child. As a basic unit of design
• Be used inverted (apex pointing downward). This signifies the unfulfilled or unmarried man; or
Be positioned with the apex pointing upwards, signifying the unfulfilled or unmarried woman; or
• Be joined with
another triangle along the base to form a diamond (or stylised egg, a universal fertility symbol) to represent the complete
or married woman; or
• Be joined to another triangle with apexes meeting in an hourglass shape, to symbolise the
complete or married man.
Listed below are the broad meanings assigned to colours, although it must be realised that there
are many subtle variations that often depend on the particular shade of a given colour, or its combination with other colours.
It must also be remembered that each colour has both positive and negative connotations, depending on the context.
Black denotes sadness, loneliness or disappointment; but in a certain context black can also symbolize marriage or convey
• Blue, depending on the shade, can symbolise the sky or the sea; faithfulness; or a garrulous disposition.
In a negative context, blue can symbolize hostility.
• Green symbolizes grass and cattle, or domestic contentment;
but can also symbolize love-sickness and jealousy.
• Pink can denote a shy suggestion of poverty, especially of
inability to provide cattle for the lobola (the bride-price paid to her parents by the prospective husband). It can also denote
high birth or an oath/promise.
• Red symbolizes strong emotion and physical love, but can also denote blood, heartache,
anger or impatience.
• White suggests purity, spiritual love and good luck. It has no negative connotations.
Yellow symbolises wealth and fertility; but can also mean estrangement, hate or withering away.
|Beaded Baubles |
With the increasing urbanization of the Zulu people, much of the
tradition associated with the craft of beadwork has lost its significance. Modern beadwork is more often made for sale than
for personal use and it is therefore difficult to assign meanings to much of the beadwork which is sold on this site and elsewhere.
However, knowledge of the origins and symbolism of the craft can only add to the pleasure of selecting, purchasing and wearing
a Mbhali piece. Furthermore, owing to an increased interest in the purchasing of fine Zulu beadwork, more and more Zulu women
are encouraged to practise the beadcraft that they learned at their mother’s knee and to pass the skill on to their
daughters, thus ensuring the survival of this unique and ancient craft into the twenty first century. SOURCES
Schoeman: "Eloquent beads, the semantics of a ZULU art form"
Regina Twala (1983) Africa Insight volume 13 no.2.
Studies (1968) volume 27 No.2 and 3.
Zulu Beads. We encourage you to visit the Mbhali site and to purchase their products.
Click on logo to left to go directly to their site.
|Beaded Purse |
Zulu Beadwork. Zulu Beads. History of Zulu Beads
string of beads, the blazon of beads, told a story in which the single bead was the necessary link to all the others. One
and many. the meaning of the tribe, together there is strength and unity. The tribal man or woman was as strong as the tribe
from which he or she came and the tribe naturally got its strength from the single bead, the pearl, the individual man or
Tied into the hair, worn singly on strings dangling from a wrist, waist or lower limb, the bead made the wearer
proud. It celebrated heraldic animals, it told stories and prophesied power. It carried for the wearer an order of symmetry
suggesting family, tribe and culture.
Attractive and precious, sacred and ornamental, the bead was a wealth of things,
all of them symbolising the power of good health and excellent living. Messages were in beads, were stored in memory, were
passed, spoken, person to person or called, hilltop to hilltop, drifting on the wind and swifter than flight.
were attributed to a mystic origin and arrived initially from Arab and European traders from Delagoa Bay (Maputo) in the early
19th century. They were the most valuable of commodities - four were worth a chicken and a few kilos were worth a bull. Red
was considered the most valuable, followed by blue then white and black. Only the chiefs wore green and yellow. Before beads,
bones, ivory, copper and wood were used for adornment.
Zulu Bead Messages
|Beaded Wristbands |
During the 11th
century it was believed that beads made of stone such as verdite, agate, soapstone, quartz crystal and other semi-precious
stones had great magical powers for protection and healing.
Before the coming of trade most of the African people used
hard seeds of various plants and trees. These included the hard grey bean-like seeds which are still used as teething beads
for babies, and the Mkhokha, the bright red bean-like seeds with a small black spot on one side. These were worn as luck bringers
by kings not only in Africa, but also by the native people of South America.
There were also ostrich-eggshell beads, which
were made in large quantities by the Khoisan women - these beads were an important item of trade between the Khoisan and African
people. Sea shells of all kinds were used as ornaments and as a material for making beads by all tribes in the land. To the
Khoi Khoi Khoisan and African people, beads were not just decorative items of attire, far from it - they were believed to
possess powers to strengthen bones and muscles in the human body, to promote good health and to prolong life.
people call beadwork "umtlalu" which means "that which makes me stay/that which gives me life". So, the Zulus adorned themselves
with beads in order to please the "Gods of life" so that the Goddess would grant longevity.
Claw Bracelet. Zulu Beads.
A bracelet consisting of 29 leopard claws,
belonging to a Zulu King. The ritual hunting of such an animal was limited to two kills per year and was only conducted by
a King. The leopard, ingwe, was believed to be both a physical and a spiritual entity. A claw from every leopard killed during
a hunt had to be fitted into a bangle that belonged to a King. Isongo Loxoco - Bracelet of Peace. Zulu Beads
A ridge inside the bangle reveals that it formed the centre of a battle-throwing spear, an assegai - inusha.
two tribes which had been locked in strife made peace, a spear belonging to the leader of both opposing factions had their
blades cut off and were hammered into a bangle such as this. At a peace ceremony the bangles were exchanged, but were handed
to the wives of the leaders. As long as these spearheads were kept by the two women, the two tribes were assured of peace.
The armguard to Siphandla
This bangle, awarded to both males and females, represented the highest order
of merit worn by warriors. Covered in studs it represented the skin of the dragon. When a warrior was awarded this bangle,
he was known as umanqoba inkanyamba, "The Conqueror of the Dragon." When the bangle was fitted to the warriors it was first
heated to prevent it from breaking. Human flesh was thus burned when it was hammered on either the left or right arm. This
was an important part of the ritual in order to give life to the bangle.
Love letters date from the introduction
of glass beads (~1830) which were quickly given meanings dependent upon their colour. Prior to beads, Zulu girls would use
seeds, ostrich eggshell and seashells for adornment.
The loveletters are small, postage stamp sized plaques of beads that
convey an emotion to the recipient - usually a favourable or unfavourable inclination towards his advances. The colours are
mixed to convey a range of meaning.
White is the colour of purity. Zulu Beads.
Black indicates the colours of
the rafters of the hut, to which colour the maiden has turned in pining for her loved one.
Blue - if I were a dove, I
would fly to your home and pick up food at your door.
Yellow - I shall never eat if we marry because you own no beast
you can slaughter.
Pink - You should work harder to gain your lobola and not gamble your money away.
Green - I have
become thin like the sweet cane in a damp field and green as the first shoots of a tree because of my love for you.
- My heart bleeds and is full of love.
Sikanye Crafts. Zulu Beads.
This project was started in January 2002.It
was born out of a need to empower and uplift impoverished women in the rural areas surrounding Eshowe in KwaZulu Natal.Many
of the woman are supporting an extended family of orphan children caused by the loss of parents through an aids pandemic that
is devastating the South African nation, and with no other means of employment.
Revival of the dying traditional craft
of beading and related crafts thereby passing on the cultural heritage to future generations.A training program to bring the
ladies into the economic mainstream of all tourist related activities locally as well as overseas.
The main characteristic
of "Sikanye Crafts" beading work is the uniqueness of a mixture in Zulu and Western culture and the specific designs that