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Friday, May 17, 2013

The Significance Of Beads And Beadwork In The Xhosa Culture

In the African context beads play a very important role. In African societies all over the continent beads have become a proud expression of cultural values over the centuries since they were first introduced by foreign traders and today they are much more than an adornment for clothes. 
We know, that glass beads were introduced by Portuguese merchants in the 16th century to Sub-Saharan Africa and they were used as a barter product in as exchange for desirable goods from the African motherland.  

Handbeaded anklets originating from the Eastern Cape - an modern expression of old tradition

But only at a much later stage in the 1930's beads became a very distinct means of cultural expression among the Xhosa speaking people in the Eastern Cape. Bead work became a craft form, practiced and perfected by skilled African artisans in the Eastern cape. This is true for many other African regions as well but we are interested in the specific meaning of beads in the Xhosa culture. Beads were used to decorate clothes and valuable traditional costumes and they were simply worn as jewelry.
Beaded jewelry pieces originating from the Eastern Cape are true masterpieces.

A Beaded Green Choker Or Necklace In Green With A Yellow Border

Detail Of A Beaded Xhosa Necklace

Today's beaded jewelry pieces, that you can find in the Eastern Cape make use of all color combinations. Traditionally only certain color combination were allowed. Jewelry pieces, that are created for traditional ceremonies are still made in white and turquoise. Before the arrival of the  beads in Africa the Xhosa people created beads and ornaments from organic, natural material, like grasses, insect cocoons, shell pieces etc. that could be found in the Eastern Cape

Handwoven organic bangles from the Eastern Cape, an old Xhosa tradition, that has endured the test of time 
(We have another interesting story for you just click on the link)

The first naturally hand made African beads we know of are probably the beads, that the San people made from the shells of ostrich eggs. 

Ostrich shell beads strung on sinew were traditionally made by the San people, they took a long time to make and were highly sought after by the Xhosa people. The image was taken at the East London Museum

In the Eastern Cape we have seen similar beads made from sea shells. Traditionally the Xhosa people, who lived close to the coast crafted these flat and square shaped looking beads.

Women In The Coastal Village Of Haga Haga Selling Handcrafted Jewelry Made from Sea Shell Beads

The Women Sell Handcrafted Jewelry Pieces To The Tourists, That Come To The Haga Haga Hotel

Like the ostrich shell beads the sea shell beads were carefully chipped, grounded and shaped to a similar size. Holes were drilled into them manually which took a long time. 
However ostrich egg beads traded higher in price than sea shell beads due to the scarcity of their natural occurrence and the fact that the shell of an ostrich egg was much harder to work with, than that of a sea shell. Ostrich egg shells were high in demand amongst the Xhosa people, who obtained them from the San people in exchange for cannabis sativa (hemp).

At a later stage colorants were used to change their appearance and today we find them replaced in many areas by Chinese plastic beads.

Earrings Made From Shell Pieces treated with a pink colorant
Bead work communicates the wearer's social status and his wealth. Certain colors and sizes of beads are directly linked to certain groups in society. Professions, like the one of a healer or diviner can be identified through the bead work its practitioners are wearing.

A White Hand Beaded Choker Ordered And Made For A European White Wedding

The social life of the Xhosa people is seen and organised as a series of distinct stages, each one invariably linked to a special ritual performance through which every person passes from the beginning of his life to the end of it. 
Passing from one stage of life to another is a complex concept firmly entrenched in many cultures.

"The passing" can be one of most important moments in some body's life because the person emerges cleaned and as a changed person. With that comes a new status and position in life, greater social responsibility as well as greater respect and acceptance in the community. Clearly defined responsibilities, obligations and privileges are linked to each life stage, thereby creating a sense of stability in the community and the social structure, the community has adopted.

Passing from one life stage to another is a complex concept firmly entrenched in the Xhosa culture
Often "passing" it is a symbolic act (for example the moment when a person receives for the first time the holy communion in the catholic religion) and in the case of the Xhosa culture passing from one stage to the next goes hand in hand with a change in dress, behaviour and bead work. We learned from Thembeka from Iza Crafts that this is the reason why the colors of beads used in traditional ceremonies and passing ceremonies can not be changed, because by doing so the ritual performance or the tradition would be broken. It can not be broken because it is like the holy gate through which the person has to walk.     

Designs have become bolder, brighter and larger but the beading technique stayed the same
In the past everything was very clearly organized in the Xhosa society and rules were laid down, that were not contradicted or opposed by the members of the society.

In the "old" Xhosa society a clear organisation and hierarchy laid down the rules, that were respected by all
Bead work, worn by traditional healers is distinctive and immediately identifies the wearer as a healer. The healer wears the signs of his profession. Novice healers wear single white strings of white beads around their heads, wrists, elbows and ankles, while experienced older healers have the right and privilege to wear much more opulent and elaborate bead work. They are also allowed to wear other colors. 
The color blue plays a very important in the symbolism of Xhosa bead work. The color blue is associated with the color of water and when a  healer wears beads of blue color it indicates, that he was immersed in a river or the sea.

The Cleansing - Xhosa Women At The Wild Coast In Quolora By The Sea
The Water Of A River Of The Sea Has The Power To Purify You

Without Purity No Healing Is Possible

The Color Blue Is Associated With The Color Of Water- And Blue Beads Are An Expression Of The Fact That the Healer Was Immersed in A River Or  The Sea
White is like in many other societies as well a symbol of purity and power. Amandla, the word that the whole world came to know through the struggle for freedom in South Africa - is the Xhosa word for power - a power, that comes from the ancestors and from god. Both purity and power are qualities a great healer has to possess. To perform the century old traditional rituals (Amasiko) the healer has to be pure and he has to be powerful to speak to the ancestors and to make the rituals effective.

White Is A Symbol Of Purity- A Traditional Healer From King Williams Town Wearing Elaborate White Bead Work
A Traditional Healer from King Williams Town - Bead Work Is more Than Symbolic. Beads Are Intrinsic To Healing
Many healers believe, that beads are not only symbolic but that are contributing to the healing process because they imbue the personal power of the healer.

The term Bantu speaking people comprises a great variety of ethnic groups residing in the Eastern Cape like the Mfengu, Nguni, Thembu, Xesibe, Bomvana, Bhaca etc. Each of these groups although belonging to a larger group have very different cultures, languages and also politically different views. Bead work also allowed for a clear distinction between these groups.

Beadwork was used to differente between different ethnic groups and different political convictions

Although glass beads were introduced as a trade commodity to Africa from European traders they form today an integral part of the Xhosa Culture. They are seen as "African" and they are. We have often talked about the fact that the value added to a product over the years turns this product into something else. Bead work is seen today as something traditional.  In every family you will find family heirlooms that have been handed down from the older generations to the younger ones and they are worn with pride.

Bead work jewelry has great commercial value today because of the new designs and the many ways it has been modernised.

 Beaded Hair band - widely available throughout the Eastern Cape

Large beaded colorful earrings

Multicolored necklace
Hand Ring of black and silver -  A modern take on the traditional way

For further insight into this topic we invite you to watch our short movie with 80 year old Thembeka Metele "The Traditional way Of Dressing In The Xhosa Culture" .


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