An exhibition of African beadwork on show in Gateshead pulls together creative strands of a partnership linking thousands of miles. BARBARA HODGSON casts an admiring eye over the result
WHEN I arrive at the Shipley Art Gallery, heavy beaded collars are already on display while other multi-coloured body adornments are being carefully unpacked from a variety of boxes.
Emma Taggart and Simphiwe Nama from the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan Art Museum in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, are busy with the installation of the Gateshead gallery’s latest exhibition.
Journeys in Beadwork: Culture and Tradition in the Eastern Cape – now on show in its full glory – is one of two new exhibitions showcasing African beadwork, both traditional and contemporary-style.
While Shipley staff in the adjacent gallery are sorting out fabulous beaded dresses – latest catwalk designs – for the second display, Emma explains that their assortment of 100 items – collars, chest pieces, anklets, bracelets and decorated clothing – is being shown in the United Kingdom for the first time, thanks to an ongoing deal with Tyne Wear Museums.
“Our municipality (the museums of Nelson Mandela Bay Municipality) entered into a partnership,” says the exhibitions officer.
“There are a lot of similarities between the North East of England and the Eastern Cape of Africa, and a similarity in the collections between Nelson Mandela Metropolitan Art Museum and Shipley.”
While the Gateshead gallery boasts a fine art collection, it has established itself over recent years as a national centre for contemporary craft – ceramics, wood, metal, glass, textiles and furniture, making up one of the best collections outside London. NMMAM’s focus is on contemporary art: it has a big ceramics collection and proudly features beadwork, the history of the traditional craft and its place in today’s society.
Port Elizabeth is an industrial town, drawing together the traditions of the surrounding rural area of the Cape. This beadwork is mainly the work of the Mfengu tribe.
Women make the pieces for the men to wear, perhaps “flirting” as a teenager by offering a small item as a gift or, as a new bride, making a complete set of beadwork for her husband.
It’s about displaying showmanship, pride, even fashion. Emma is keen for us to enjoy the items’ beauty as much as appreciate their cultural value. “For beaders, the work is an expression of love and it’s about self-expression.
“It might be a gift, part of courtship. You’d keep these pieces from your teenage years.
“The more beadwork a guy has, the more it shows he’s loved.”
The colours chosen are meaningful too. White beads represent spirituality, a single strand can mean transition, perhaps the life of its wearer being in a state of flux, blue signifies purity.
It’s about group identity too. Pearlised buttons, for instance, are a regular feature in the Mfengu people’s intricate exhibits.
Beadwork is traditionally worn during rituals, “like a party outfit”.
Simphiwe, an exhibition technician trained in textile design and technology, takes the main ceremonial role in his own family, following the death of his father.
“He passed away so it’s me usually,” he says, adding that rituals might take place during a family consultation if something has gone wrong, or around a death, a family feud in a township or in appointing a traditional healer.
He’s seen a great change in the way traditional customs are viewed in modern-day society, noting the culture clash between a ritual killing of a goat and protests by animal rights campaigners.
But whether beadwork has a place in the contemporary world is illustrated beautifully in the adjacent exhibition.
Journeys in Beadwork: Dialogues in Contemporary Style reveals its influence on Western fashion in a selection of clothing, including sparkling dresses.
Beads, it seems, are very much on the catwalk in a range of fabrics, cuts, colours and pixel-type patterns.
Among the designers taking inspiration from its traditions is South African Laduma Ngxokolo whose work has featured at London Fashion Week. Visitors can see his knitwear designs for men which offer a contemporary take on an art-form with origins – as Emma and Simphiwe’s exhibition shows – in the early days of the settler community bartering goods when early examples of beading were, for example, shells strung on sinew.
It’s informative stuff. In fact, says Emma, putting together the exhibition for us has proved quite a learning experience for them too.
In making two “scene-setting” videos for the exhibition, they interviewed schoolchildren, as well as older people. “There were really mixed messages,” says Emma.
Some young people saw beadwork as being more for their parents and grandparents and some would wear it for family occasions and ceremonies to please their elders; while it was even considered a religious taboo amongst African Catholics.
The findings will form the basis of new discussions, says Emma, on their return to Africa.
“That came out of the partnership and it’s been really interesting, like a pebble dropped into a pool.”
The exhibitions run at Shipley Art Gallery, Prince Consort Road, Gateshead, until September 2. Entry is free. On May 19, the gallery will host an Africa-themed night as part of The Late Shows, with DJ Vamanos playing African house and electro music, dance, and a barbecue inspired by a South African Braai.
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