Fashion is never just fashion. What we wear tells the story of who we are, where we come from and how we feel. Take a look at African beadwork for example: Admired for its intricate designs, patterns and colour combinations, the jewellery has fast become a huge part of contemporary Western Fashion. However, the cultural and historical significance belonging to the beads and the hands that weave them contain a far deeper story and message.
Before pen and paper, there were beads. These beads, strung together to create distinct patterns and intricately designed jewellery and accessories as well as decorate cherished possessions, became the main mode of communication amongst African cultures.
While the jewellery may appear to the naked eye to be just exquisitely designed and intricately made fashion accessories to wear around your neck or wrist, its true meaning is rooted far beneath the surface. The beads are cultural and historical artifacts, the colours are coded with language and love letters, and the patterns and designs are steeped in cultural significance.
The beads acted as social signifiers as well as conveying personal feelings and emotions from one person to another. Different colours represented different ethnic backgrounds and the different sizes of the beads indicated different time periods.
Anthropologist at Albany History Museum, Phumeza Mntonintshi explained that the sizes, shapes, and materials used in the beadwork were all indicative of certain time periods. “People liked variation, and they liked to keep up with the times. Beading encouraged one to think creatively and use whatever resources at their disposal from their location and era,” Phumeza explained.
She said the rise of the trade period in the 16th and 17th century also influenced beadwork as people started using big glass beads that became available. Similarly, the small class beads predominantly used in African beadwork today characterises modernity.
Beading became a common hobby amongst amaXhosa grandmothers who beaded to pass time. They would then impart the skill onto the next generations, keeping the practice alive. Mntonintshi said beading was heavily influenced by culture and identity, “without knowing it, what the women would bead, would reflect who they were through the love of their culture,” she explained. The beadwork served as a language in itself, a language located in the love of a culture.
For centuries, love letters were a prominent form of beadwork in which young women would bead items such as necklaces or waistbands, wherein the chosen colours of the beads and the patterns carried a distinct message meant for their lover. Mntonintshi said love letters were usually characterised by the use of diamond or diced patterns.
Beading was not only limited to jewellery or clothing accessories. People would bead everything they loved and appreciated including tobacco spoons and pins. In this way, the beads would personalise the item by reflecting the person’s identity and marking ownership of the possession, “it was a way of imparting a piece of yourself onto your treasured object,” explained Mntonintshi. This practise has been translated in a similar way in Western societies today with the trend of customising and personalising objects, extending to printing photos on mugs, or engraving one’s name on a pen.
While the cultural significance of patterns and colours in beading is upheld in African cultures today, the rise of trade and the global economy has impacted the gradual appropriation of these cultural and historical artifacts into Western fashion trends. Mntonintshi said this divide can be traced back to the days of slavery and labour laws which subsequently disrupted the tradition of passing the skill of beadwork on to younger generations. As a result, today it is predominantly the older generations of grandmothers who know and continue to practice African beadwork.
The increase of trade further impacted the cultural significance of beadwork as Western cultures found the jewellery aesthetically pleasing and all of a sudden there was a high demand for African beadwork to be made for Western wearers, without the cultural signifiers attached.
“The beadwork would still perform its cultural role, but now it would be made to look different, to attract a Western target market,” Mntonintshi explained.
Notemba Makinana and Nowethu January hold a permanent place outside the Drostdy Arch selling their hand-crafted African beadwork to passers-by and have first-hand experience of this cultural appropriation and the loss of cultural significance of beadwork.
“(The beadwork) has become a fashion statement and it has lost its cultural significance. Even in parliament, people wear these big headdresses and necklaces, but the colours show no cultural significance,” Makinana expressed.
The pair, who have been beading since the age of 31, were taught the skill by an old ‘mama’ in the community after they started to show an interest in the cultural practice. “Magoga taught us that beads are our culture,” Makinana recalled. The old women noticed that the younger generations were wearing blue and white beads, which were only meant to be worn by wives and mothers. Makinana and January realised how detached from their culture their younger generation had become and desired to get back in touch with embodying the cultural significance of Xhosa beadwork.
“When we enquired of Magoga the real purpose of the beads, she laughed and said beads were not only meant to beautify oneself, but they acted as a silent language. They told who you were and (in the case of the love letters) who you loved,” January recalled.
Although they do not impart the same cultural meaning into the beadwork they make for the tourists who have become their primary customers, they still stick to using the Xhosa colours in order to remain true to their ethnic heritage, and “people still want traditional Xhosa beadwork,” Makinana added.
While the increased interest in African beadwork amongst Western culture has created a market for people like Makinana and January to receive an income from, they are of late also experiencing a downside to the appropriation of beadwork as a trend in Western fashion. The demand for the jewellery has led to the situation of increased competition amongst traders where there are now “more traders than buyers”.
“We used to be the only people selling here, now there are more people on every corner and the customers go for the lowest price. We sit here all day making necklaces; it takes a lot of time and money to buy the beads. We have to cover our costs to make an income, so we can’t afford to sell our beads for cheap like the other places,” Makinana explained.
Nowethu January and Notemba Makinana are regular bead merchants at the Drostdy Arch outside Rhodes University. The duo have been beading since the age of 31 when they expressed an interest to get back into their culture. Their story speaks to the extent to which African beadwork has been culturally appropriated in Western society. Photos: Jade le Roux
When we commemorate our histories that have brought us to where we are today, let us not forget the histories that have been momentarily misplaced. Next time you see or wear a piece of African beadwork, celebrate the unifying factor of African beadwork, that not even centuries of slavery and oppression have been able to silence its attempt at keeping a culture alive.
Featured image: Jade le Roux
*Originally published in Grocotts Mail, 29 September 2017.