Painting with Beads: A New Art Form Emerges in South Africa

Vicky Gan in Smithsonian:

BeadsAt Little Farm, a former sugar plantation near Durban, women paint with beads. “Ubuhle Women: Beadwork and the Art of Independence,” a new exhibition at the Anacostia Community Museum, showcases the dazzling creations of this community of artists, living and working together in rural KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. Called Ubuhle, or “beauty” in the Xhosa language, the community was founded in 1999 by migrant worker Ntombephi “Induna” Ntobela and local resident Bev Gibson, who co-curated the exhibition. Together the Ubuhle women have developed a new take on a South African tradition: the ndwango, a fabric panel of colored glass beads. Unlike traditional beadwork, which is worn on the body, these artworks are displayed on the walls like paintings. “By stretching this textile like a canvas,” writes Gibson, “the artists transform the flat cloth into a contemporary art form.”

Ubuhle came together in response to post-apartheid poverty in South Africa. Five of the artists are from the Transkei, the birthplace of Nelson Mandela, but left home in search of opportunity and financial independence. They found it at Little Farm, working day in and day out to create commissioned ndwangos; a single panel can take more than ten months to complete. At the same time, the women are raising families and running households. They bead while they cook, while they chop wood and while they feed the children. Work is an inextricable part of their daily lives, and vice versa. “The patterns and colors take on what happens to these artists over those months,” says James Green, a research scholar at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and co-curator of the exhibition. “They become true portraits of that time. These panels are their hope. They put everything into them.”

More here.