Migration of Beadmaking and Beadwork Throughout Africa


 Royal Arts among the Yoruba, Bamum, and Kuba

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 regalia.

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 design.