Migration of Beadmaking and Beadwork Throughout Africa

Personal Adornment among the Topotha, Maasai, and Ndebele


Many African peoples use beads as distinctive elements of personal clothing and adornment. This is especially true for some peoples of southern and eastern Africa, where artistic creativity is manifested in the myriad ways beads are used for embellishment.

Traditionally, many societies in eastern and southern Africa have been organized according to age grades. Each individual passes through clearly defined levels, such as childhood, adulthood, marriage, and old age. A transition from one level to the next is often accompanied by a change in clothing and adornment, which are often made from or decorated with beads. What persons wear may communicate to others their age, the identities of the groups to which they belong, and their status within their communities. Certain kinds of beaded clothing and adornment are worn only by men or by women.

The peoples of the southeastern region of Sudan, including the Topotha, have long been known for their array of personal adornments and dress (Mack 1982). Among the Topotha, imported glass beads were regarded as valuable trade items. The possession of these beads indicated high status and wealth. At the beginning of this century, a British colonial military officer, Major Powell-Cotton described beads sewn on leather disks and used as hair ornaments by the Topotha (Powell-Cotton 1904, 387). Later, beaded hats replaced these beaded leather disks among the Topotha.

In the 1930s, Captain G. R. King described hats, elaborately decorated with red beads arranged in circular patterns, that were worn by important Topotha men (Nalder 1970, 77) According to the description, these hats resemble a Topotha beaded hat now in the permanent collection of the National Museum of African Art. The artist created this hat by sewing glass beads in tightly arranged circular patterns onto an open-weave frame foundation of hide lined with hair.

Among the Maasai in southern Kenya and northern Tanzania, women do the beadwork. The Maasai, who are pastoralists, articulate their identity and position in society through body ornaments and body painting (Klumpp 1987,105). Maasai women wear elaborate ensembles of beaded clothing and adornment, including necklaces and ear ornaments.

The intricate patterns Maasai women create with colored glass beads is exemplified by the necklace. It is composed of three parts. In each, the beads were strung on wires and coiled to form spiral patterns. The dominant color of the beads on the largest necklace is red. The artist created a unified display of vivid color by attaching smaller necklaces of various colored beads to the larger red necklace.

The beads on the ear ornaments are attached to a hide backing. The combination of various colored beads on the top half of each earring and the blue beads on the bottom half creates balanced patterns of strong colors. These particular types of necklaces and ear ornaments were worn only by married women.

Beadworking has a long history among the Maasai. In the nineteenth century, beads were produced mostly from local raw materials. White beads were made from clay, shells, ivory, or bone. Black and blue beads were made from iron, charcoal, seeds, clay, or horn. Red beads came from seeds, woods, gourds, bone, ivory, copper, or brass (Klumpp 1987, 30). In the late nineteenth century, great quantities of brightly colored European glass beads arrived in East Africa. The women beadworkers replaced the older beads with the new materials. They began to use more elaborate color schemes in their bead designs (Klumpp 1987, 31). Today, Maasai prefer dense, opaque glass beads with no surface decoration and a naturally smooth finish (Klumpp 1987, 67).

Among the most familiar visual traditions of southern Africa is the beadwork of Ndebele women. Historical evidence suggests that Ndebele beadwork developed rapidly after the Mapoch War of 1882, when white settlers in South Africa defeated the Ndebele. They uprooted and relocated the Ndebele to different parts of southern Africa. However, the Ndebele maintained a strong group consciousness, and art became one way in which they asserted their identity. They painted their homes with distinct patterns and wore beaded clothing and ornaments as part of everyday dress. Thus, the Ndebele proclaimed their cultural identity no matter where they were (Davison 1985, 19).

Geometric patterns dominate Ndebele beadwork and mural paintings on the outside walls of their houses. The beadworkers strive for balance in their compositions and a harmony of color (AmaNdebele 1991, 69). Contemporary bead designs use motifs-such as houses, airplanes, telegraph poles, car license plates, and the Roman alphabet-that relate to modern life (Davison 1985, 19).

Creating beaded attire is the domain of Ndebele women, and a wide variety of beaded garments mark the transitions in women's lives. An Ndebele bridal apron (jishogolo) in the permanent collection of the National Museum of African Art is a fine example of recent beadwork. Upon her marriage, a woman receives a plain canvas apron from the family of her groom. The apron consists of a rectangle with five panels, which are referred to as "calves" and allude to the woman's ability to bear children (AmaNdebele 1991, 64). After her marriage, the woman embroiders the apron with seed beads in a simple design for everyday use or in more elaborate patterns for ceremonial use. She sews imported European glass beads onto the canvas backing and arranges them in bold geometric designs that evoke the shape of Ndebele houses. In the apron, blue, green, and pink beads contrast with the white beaded background.