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Exhibition focuses on the aesthetics and significance of African beadwork
Pipe. Wood, sheet iron, cotton, glass beads, artist of the Xhosa region, South Africa, Eastern Cape, before 1950. © Museum Rietberg, collection François and Claire Mottas.

ZURICH.- With Bead Art from Africa the Museum Rietberg presents an exhibition on the aesthetics and significance of beadwork, thus, for the first time, allowing women artists to take centre stage.

Overlooked by art history for a long time, women play the key role as creators of beadwork in African art. The beadwork produced by women in the eastern and southern parts of the continent takes on the shape of figurative art in West Africa. Viewing the designs and techniques reveals how much creativity and skill goes into making these filigree objects.

Whether dealing with extravagant ornaments, impressive masks, or royal stools – the exhibition unfolds the vast scope and ingenuity of bead art in East, South and West Africa. However, glass beads never served merely decorative or ornamental purposes; the colours and designs also convey intricate messages about age, gender, and identity of the persons wearing the pieces.

The glass beads that reached Africa from Europe embody early globalization. As from the 17th on they were produced specifically for the African market in places like Venice, Amsterdam and Bohemia. Women also played a key role in the manufacture and trade of glass beads. However, glass beads always meant more than simple trade goods or means of payment.

In a gradual process of cultural appropriation, the new materials were endowed with a unique aesthetics of their own and charged with symbolic meaning, taking their cue in parts from existing artistic techniques such as body painting, mural art, and weaving. Thus, glass beads stand for both innovation and tradition.

With the Mottas collection, an undisclosed treasure trove has found its way to the Rietberg Museum which both adds to and enhances the existing Africa collection. Grouped into different thematic fields, the exhibition sheds light on the design and uses of African bead art. Old beadworks dating from the 19th and early 20th centuries are juxtaposed with contemporary positions from South Africa.

The first section “Interwoven Worlds” sheds light on the history of production and the worldwide trade of glass beads. One of the highlights is a map of the world indicating global trade routes. To create the map, the bead designers Anna Richerby and Laurence Kapinga Tshimpaka from Cape Town relied on more than 350,000 glass beads produced in the Czech Republic.

The focus of the next two galleries, “Colour and Design” and “Lines and Surfaces”, is on how beadworks are able to communicate messages with regard to age, gender, and identity. Here oral traditions, so important in African cultures, are translated into physical shapes and materials. While among the Zulu and Xhosa peoples of South Africa the interplay of colours is striking, in East Africa the difference between the delicate designs of the Maasai people and the more planar style of the Kamba immediately captures the eye.

Beads and ornaments, as so many other materials, repeatedly undergo transformations and aesthetic modification. The section “TransFORMations” addresses, on the one hand, bead traditions from southern and central Africa which have emerged from art forms such as body painting, plaiting and weaving. But then again, textural changes are also encountered modern fashion design. Labels such as MaXhosa by Laduma, for instance, gather inspiration from old beadworks, while the internationally renowned South African designer Laduma Ngxokolo takes colours and patterns from traditional Xhosa ornaments and transforms them into new materials, as his modern knitwear collection goes to show.

The section “Figurative” touches upon a further aspect of bead art, namely, bead-decorated masks and sculptures. In this case beads give expression to social, religious and political relationships between the various classes in a society. Thus, beads not only signify the negotiation of gender but also stand for the lavish splendour used to celebrate royal power and rule. An impressive example is the bead-decorated royal stool from the kingdom of Bamum in Cameroon.

On the basis of historical postcards, the exhibition also shows how, in the West, glass beads were seen as being “typical” hallmarks of “traditional” Africa, without ever acknowledging the extent of innovation and exchange that was going on. In his project Native Work, the South African photographer Andrew Putter examines the dehumanizing and exoticizing properties of early ethnographic photography.

Showcasing beadworks from South Africa and other regions in Africa, the exhibition presents some ninety highlights from the collection recently donated to the museum by François Mottas. One of the characteristic features of his collection is the focus on small glass beads, so-called seed beads. Over the last thirty years, the passionate collector has assembled and carefully documented a collection of nearly 400 pieces.

The exhibition is accompanied by a catalogue published by Scheidegger & Spiess and edited by Michaela Oberhofer, with contributions by François Mottas, Nanina Guyer, and Daniela Müller; 176 pages, ca. 130 figures.

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