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African Beads: A Book and Craft Kit Paperback – November 23, 1999
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Take it from one of our 10-year-old testers, who wrote, "I've always had a love for beads that are precisely woven in an intricate design....As I turned every page [of this book] new facts and beautiful pictures jumped out at me....I couldn't wait to get started....Once I [did], I was surprised to see how easy it was....Working on the projects was very informative, relaxing, and rewarding. I would recommend this book and craft kit to anyone of my age or older!" With her report, she submitted a professional-looking daisy necklace. A 2000 Parents' Choice® Gold Award winner.
Reviewed by Ruth B. Roufberg, Parents' Choice® 2000 -- From Parents' Choice®
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Chapter 1: Beautiful Beads
Color, sparkle, radiance -- these are qualities that make beads a treasured material throughout the world. In Africa, perhaps more than anywhere else, beads are also prized for the ideas they communicate. Beyond being beautiful, beads "speak" to the people who use them and see them -- conveying important information about power, belief, and cultural experience and identity.
Beads have many meanings. At one time, their rarity made them a valued form of currency. Even now, they signify wealth and are closely associated with kings and other leaders. Beads are also associated with religion: Their shimmering appearance suggests spirituality, and certain colors are linked to specific deities. In addition, beads can proclaim important information about an individual's place in the world, such as whether a woman is married or unmarried, whether a man is a warrior or an elder, and whether a person is of low or high rank.
African beadwork is as diverse as the many cultures that populate the continent. The chapters that follow highlight a selection of bead artistry from five regions of Africa, each with its own beadwork traditions. The people who made these impressive objects possess different cultures and languages, and live in vastly differing environments. The map at the beginning of each chapter indicates where each group lives, and the map at the start of the book snows where these groups live in relationship to one another.
Most of the beads shown in this book are small, glass "seed beads," which originated in Europe. The increased availability of these beads in the nineteenth century contributed to the creativity of African artists, enriching millennia-old bead traditions and inspiring new varieties of beadwork.
The Beadworker's Art
The artists who use beads to make jewelry and to decorate sculpture and ceremonial objects are called beadworkers. In some African cultures, such as the Yoruba, of Nigeria, the beadworkers have traditionally been men. The most famous of the Yoruba beadworkers belong to professional workshops and receive commissions to make the impressive regalia and objects for Yoruba rulers.
In other African cultures, the beadworkers have traditionally been women. This is especially true where beaded objects are used by the people who make them, and where beads are primarily used for jewelry and other items of personal adornment. Ndebele women, of South Africa and Zimbabwe, and Maasai women, of Kenya and Tanzania, are skilled beadworkers who make necklaces, bracelets, skirts, and other items, mainly for themselves and their families.
Africa's Earliest Beads
Beads come in many shapes and materials. For thousands of years, African beadmakers have crafted beads from various natural materials, including shells, seeds, tusks, bone, clay, wood, stone, glass, and metal. The earliest-known African beads were made from pieces of ostrich eggshell in northern Africa about 12,000 years ago.
All of the objects in this book were created in Africa, south of the Sahara. The first glass beads in the sub-Saharan region may have been made in Mapungubwe, South Africa, around A.D. 600. About one thousand Years ago, glass beads were also made in Nigerian cities, including Ife and Igbo-Ukwu. Today, the cities of Bida, in Nigeria, and Kiffa, in Mauritania, endure as two of the most important African sites for glass beadmaking. Beadmakers in both of these cities excel in creating individually made, minutely detailed, multicolored beads.
The first imported glass beads on the continent are thought to have been brought from India by Arab merchants in about 200 B.C. Due in part to the nature of early trade, beads from India and the Arab world were available in comparatively small quantities.
Beads were carried along routes that stretched thousands of miles over sea and land, across desert and savanna, before reaching major inland trading centers, like the wealthy ancient city of Timbuktu.
The European Bead Trade
In Europe, the Italian city of Venice dominated the world bead market in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Glass beads were produced there in factories in large quantities. Later, beads were produced in and exported from the Netherlands, Bohemia (now the Czech Republic), and other European countries. European ships set sail for Africa and the Americas with cargoes of beads, which were among the favorite items of barter.
In Africa, beads were exchanged for valuable commodities such as gold, ivory, and -- until 1870 -- slaves. Portuguese vessels were the first to arrive, in the late 1400s and 1500s, followed by Dutch, English, French, Belgian, and German merchants. At first, trade was concentrated in African coastal areas. Beads were sold in port cities, including Accra, Lagos, Fernando Po, and Delagoa Bay, and then were resold along existing trade routes. In the late 1800s, with the colonial partitioning and rule of Africa by nations such as England, France, and Belgium, Europeans increasingly brought beads to the continent's interior.
African beadwork evokes a rich palette of identity, belief, and inspiration. It has endured in Africa for thousands of years and more recently has taken hold in the Americas. During the slave trade, Africans who were forcibly brought to the Americas carried this legacy with them. Today, beadwork with roots in Yoruba and other African cultures is made in cities from New York to Rio de Janeiro.
In Africa, contemporary artists continue To experiment with new forms, colors, and patterns. Many of the traditional styles of beadwork shown in this book are still made, along with recent varieties that reflect new ideals, audiences, and materials. As outsiders have come to appreciate the beauty and graphic power of African beadwork, artists have increasingly produced items for sale to tourists and the foreign market. African beadwork is a rich and ever changing tradition. Strands of beads continue to connect the continent to the rest of the world -- across oceans and over time.
Copyright © 1999 by The Metropolitan Museum of Art