Migration of Beadmaking and Beadwork Throughout Africa
Royal Arts among the Yoruba, Bamum,
Beads and royalty are closely linked in Africa.
For centuries, African rulers accumulated valuable, locally made and imported
beads. They also controlled their distribution and use. The ownership of
large quantities of beads, the variety of exquisite beaded clothing and
regalia, and the right to display colorful beaded designs distinguish rulers
from the rest of the populace. During public ceremonies, kings wear spectacular
arrays of beadwork. They dazzle their subjects with the splendid colors
and the unique designs of their royal costumes and regalia.
In West and Central Africa, kings bring to their courts male artists
who create masterpieces of beaded clothing, adornment, and bead embroidered
regalia. Artists often vary the shapes of objects, apply different beaded
designs, and follow different color schemes. The selected works of art discussed
in the following pages exemplify particular types of objects among the many
commissioned and used by royalty.
Among the most spectacular beaded objects from Africa are the crowns
of Yoruba kings in Nigeria. Yoruba rulers wear these crowns with veils on
state occasions and during public functions. It consists of a cone-shaped
basketry frame over which the artist stretched starched cotton. He formed
faces from starched cotton, attached beaded figures of birds, and decorated
the entire surface of the crown with beads of contrasting colors. Finally,
he affixed a veil of beaded strands to shroud the face of the king.
In Yoruba tradition, strands of beads are the emblems of the gods. Wearing
a beaded crown with a veil is the quintessential sign of kingship (Thompson
1970, 8). The faces on the crown represent ancestors, one of whom might
be Oduduwa, the legendary founder of the Yoruba. The gathering of the birds
alludes to the spirits' world and the king's ability to mediate between
the realms of the human beings and of the spirits.
Like Yoruba kings, rulers of the kingdoms in the Grassfields region of
Cameroon possess lavishly beaded works of art, ranging from beaded sculpture
to clothing, adornment, and regalia (Harter 1986; Northern 1975). In the
Kingdom of Bamum, beaded sculpture is abundant (Geary 1983). The oldest
extant beaded works of art from Bamum date to the beginning of the nineteenth
century. Among them is a royal figure, produced in the second half of the
nineteenth century, that is now in the permanent collection of the National
Museum of African Art.
The history of Bamum beadwork is fascinating. At the beginning of the
nineteenth century, when the Bamum kingdom expanded from a small state to
the largest kingdom in the Grassfields region, beads were extremely rare.
The small seed beads (memmi) had to be imported from the Cameroon coast
and Nigeria through middlemen. Cowrie shells (mbuum) were equally sought
after and became a currency and an artistic medium. To this day, the Bamum
term for money is mbuum. The Bamum kings controlled both distribution and
use of beads and cowrie shells. Toward the turn of the century, the bead
and cowrie shell supply increased; this led to a proliferation of beadwork.
The Bamum kings also exerted control over the beadworkers, who came from
a small kingdom called Mamegnam, which had been defeated by the Bamum at
the beginning of the nineteenth century. The king relocated the beadworkers
to the Bamum palace, where they worked exclusively for him and the palace
elite (Geary 1983,87). In addition to large, beaded sculptures, the artists
created intricate headdresses and bead embroidered clothing, belts, necklaces,
and bracelets. Staff of offices and beaded bags formed part of each king's
Among the well-known royal objects are fly whisks (sa) with beaded handles.
Bamum kings use such fly whisks during ceremonial occasions and annual festivals.
The fly whisk depicted here is a fine example of the intricacy and ingenuity
of Bamum beadwork. The two male figures on the handle of the fly whisk represent
the king's retainers, who wear typical attire and adornment consisting of
armlets, belts, and crescent-shaped hats.
Representations of men and women in Bamum royal art allude to the king's
wealth in people. The doubling of the human figure may reflect the significance
of twins, who are sent to the palace by their parents to serve the king.
Male twins are the most important and trusted retainers at court, while,
in the past, female twins became royal wives.
Artists from the Kuba kingdom in Zaire are well known for the complexity
and elegance of their two-dimensional designs. Among their most spectacular
creations are ceremonial clothing and adornment for the Kuba king and high-ranking
officials of the kuba court. They embellish costumes with distinctive patterns
by alternating colorful beads (mush) and white cowrie shells (pash intshyeentsh)
and leave few empty spaces (Cornet1982,187-88).
The belt, belt ornament, and collar from the collection of the Hampton
University Museum provide an example of the many ways in which Kuba artists
elaborated and decorated particular types of objects, such as belts, hats,
and bracelets. It is noteworthy that the belt and belt ornament were collected
by William Henry Sheppard (1865-1927), who in 1890 became the first African-American
missionary sent by the Southern Presbyterian Mission Board to Africa. In
1892, he became the first foreign missionary to enter the Kuba kingdom.
He established a cordial relationship with king Kot a-Mbweeky II, who reigned
from 1892 to 1896. Sheppard's collection of objects from Zaire is now at
the museum of Hampton University, where he studied (Zeidler and Hultgren
1988; Sheppard 1916).
Kuba artists produce many different belt types (Cornet 1982, 202-204).
The belt on the left consists of rectangles of cowrie shells that are attached
at their ends to the cloth foundation; this creates a richly articulated
surface. The Kuba compare the aesthetic effect of this pattern to bristling
animal hair (Cornet 1982, 187). Other rectangles are created from cowrie
shells and beads. Belt ornaments, worn by royalty and noble men and women,
vary greatly in form and in the extent of bead and cowrie shell patterns.
There is an equally large variety of collars and necklaces.
The Kuba King, the royal family, and members of the court wear beaded
clothing and adornment during state occasions. For such events, the king
possesses several splendid costumes. The most exquisite and important of
all royal ceremonial costumes is bwaantshy (see
the image gallery). Each king commissioned his own bwaantshy after his
enthronement and was buried in it when he died (Cornet, 1982, 245-48). This
extravagant royal costume, weighing almost 185 pounds, consists of a tunic
embroidered with beads and cowrie shells; several heavy, beaded belts and
hip ornaments; necklaces and bracelets; and an ornate headdress with an
attached beaded beard. Bead-embroidered gloves and shoes cover the ruler's
hands and feet. Sitting solemnly on a dais next to beaded royal drums (pelambish),
the king seems transformed into a work of art. He embodies wealth, power,
beauty, and the kuba aesthetic preference for accumulation and abundant