February is Black History month and we at Beadworks were interested in learning more about the history of beading and bead making in Africa. We researched online and found a great article (see here for site) from the Smithsonian Museum in Washington DC that elaborates on the history beadmaking in Africa. They have an entire online archive of articles which were written in conjunction with a past exhibit on African Beading that we found fascinating and inspiring. See here for the full archive. We hope you enjoy this article as much as we do!
History, Trade, and Beadworking Techniques
Since ancient times, African peoples have cherished beads and appreciated their beauty. Made of various materials, beads are small, perforated, and often rounded objects found throughout the world. Glass beads, in particular, are a common element of African adornment and are widely used in African clothing and regalia.
There are two types of beadwork specialists. Beadmakers produce beads from various materials. Beadworkers are artists who create jewelry, garments, and regalia from beads that are made locally or are imported from Europe, the Near East, and India. Artists must carefully consider the materials, colors, textures, shapes, and sizes of the beads to choose those that complement or contrast with one another. Although beads are used primarily to create colorful ensembles, in some instances, one single colored or multicolored bead of fine workmanship may have as great a visual impact as a splendid array of many beads.
Beads have played an important role in the personal lives of Africans and in the court life of African kingdoms. They have been valued as currency and as an artistic medium. The materials beadworkers have used in their artworks have varied over time. They include shells, stone, clay, metal, and glass.
The earliest examples of locally manufactured African beads are disk-shaped beads made from ostrich eggshells; these date to around 10,000 B.C. and have been recovered from archaeological sites in Libya and Sudan (Dubin 1987,122). Beadwork has often been enhanced and complemented with cowrie shells. These beadlike, brilliantly white shells have also served as a popular currency and a source of embellishment. Arab, and later European, traders imported cowrie shells from the Indian Ocean. These shells have been widely traded throughout Africa.
Stone beads have been found in several places in Africa. Some, dated to the first millennium B.C., have been found near Nok, Nigeria; others, dated from the fifth to fifteenth centuries A.D., have been discovered at Djenne’, Mali. Among the Yoruba peoples, a beadmaking industry flourished in Ilorin, Nigeria, beginning in the 1830s. The bead-makers acquired agate, carnelian, and red jasper stones through the trans-Saharan trade and shaped them into beads. In the fifteenth century, artists in the Kingdom of Benin, Nigeria, used coral beads, brought in large quantities by the Portuguese, to make elaborate clothing and regalia for their kings (Ben-Amos 1980, 20-23; Dubin 1987, 124; Carey 1991, 11).
Clay was also used to make beads. Beadmakers of the Baule peoples in Cote d’ Ivoire modeled and fired clay to create exquisite terra cotta beads. The artists impressed the entire surfaces of the beads with regular, parallel grooves. The Baule bead in Figure 2 may have been the centerpiece of a necklace.
Another material for beads has been locally obtained and worked metal. Tin beads in the shape of cowne shells have been found at Nok. To this day, the Akan peoples of Ghana and Cote d’lvoire wear gold beads, which their artists cast using the lost-wax method.
Glass, originally in the form of imported beads or bottles, is another important raw material in African beadmaking. The beadmakers either ground up or broke the glass, melted it, and produced new beads. At Ife, Nigeria, the spiritual home of the Yoruba peoples, a major glass bead industry developed by the ninth century A.D. Glass for this industry was obtained in large quantities from medieval Europe and the Near East (Willett 1977, 22). A bead industry also existed in Mapungubwe, South Africa, from A.D. 600 to 1200. It is not known whether the glass for these beads was produced locally or imported (Dubin 1987, 125).
Beadmaking industries still flourish among the Krobo peoples of Ghana and the Nupe peoples in Bida, Nigeria. The beadmaking industry at Bida is famous throughout West Africa. The German ethnologist Leo Frobenius (1873-1938) drew European attention to the beadmakers in Bida in 1911, when he first documented their technique (Frobenius 1968, 434-36). Since then, other scholars have described this technique in their works (see, for example, Carey 1991,12-14).
To produce the desired colors for their beads, Nupe beadmakers melt colored glass from bottles or other glass beads in a small, woodburning, clay furnace. They then use iron rods to form the molten glass into various shapes (Frobenius 1968, 434). Finally, the beadmakers decorate their beads with a distinctive white pattern by winding a thin trail of white melted glass around the bead while it is still hot (Carey 1991,14). The fluid colors of the irregularly formed glass beads convey a sense of elegance.
Throughout history, Africans have imported glass beads and used them for adornment and elaborate beadwork. At Djenne’, Mali, Roman-style and Egyptian Ptolemaic period (304-30 B.c.) glass beads, traded across the Sahara, have been found at sites dated from 300 B.C. to A.D. 200. Along the coast of eastern and southern Africa, small, opaque glass beads from India have been discovered in sites dated to A.D. 200 (Dubin 1987,125).
Since the fifteenth century, Europeans have brought to Africa millions of glass beads from Italy, Bohemia (now part of the Czech Republic), and The Netherlands. These beads range in size from tiny, brilliantly colored seed beads, no larger than three millimeters (1/8 inch) in diameter, to elaborate, large chevron beads-the name refers to their zigzag pattern. These beads can be as long as eight centimeters (3 inches). European companies specialized in bead trade to Africa and offered many styles of beads.
They produced “trading cards” to show the assortment of bead types to their African customers (Carey 1991, 7). Today, these cards and samples allow researchers to identify and date specific types of beads . Chevron beads, shipped to Africa since the sixteenth century, have been especially popular in West Africa. They are produced mainly in Venice, Italy (Gordon and Kahan 1976,21; Harter 1992,11). In many regions, men wear them as part of necklace ensembles to demonstrate their status and wealth. In the Grassfields region of Cameroon, for example, kings and important men possess elaborate necklaces with large chevron beads.
The colorful seed beads, in particular, gave rise to many fine beadworking traditions. For example, Ndebele women in South Africa began to create intricate beadwork in the nineteenth century . At the same time, artists in the Grassfields region of Cameroon developed a unique tradition of beaded sculpture.
The techniques of African beadwork vary. Beads may be strung on fiber cord or metal wire to create bracelets and necklaces. Beads may be stitched to a backing of fiber, canvas, or leather as among the Ndebele. In the Grassfields region of Cameroon, bead-workers peg burlap or cloth to wooden carvings (see Northern 1984,131; Qeary 1983,105-106) so they can decorate the sculpture with seed or tubular beads (Harter 1992, 8; Geary 1983, 87). The artists use the “lazy-stitch” method to fasten the beads to the cloth. They string the beads on a fine thread and then attach the row of beads by sewing approximately every fifth bead to the cloth foundation. The vibrant colors and complex designs of the bead embroidery become an essential part of the sculpture.