Strictly personal: A major collector’s love affair with American Indian art.

“Living with American Indian Art” by  Alan Hirschfield and Terry Winchell, with a foreword by Gaylord Torrens.  

Photography by W Garth Dowling.  

Gibbs Smith 2012,  Hard cover with dust jacket, 279 pages.

$40 – $50 at

Most private tribal collectors who publish books on their collections seek to make them resemble an official museum publication or exhibition catalogue as closely possible. One thinks of John Friede’s meticulously researched two volumes on the Jolika Collection of New Guinea Art he donated  to the De Young, or Mark Blackburn’s epic “Polynesia” with text by Adrienne Kaeppler of the Smithsonian.

Alan Hirschfield’s book is not like that. Instead he has chosen to present and describe his  collection in a way that is personal.  So personal , it even includes an eight  page preface which is an overview of Hirschfield’s Hollywood career, which included the top jobs at 20th Century Fox and Columbia.

For an ex- Hollywood power broker, Hirschfield comes across as a nice guy.  He affectionately acknowledges the support of his wife Berte, who shares his enthusiasm (and their home) with this  collection, and he  graciously thanks the many curators and dealers who have contributed to his education – including Gaylord Torrens of the Nelson Atkins Art Museum who wrote the foreword,  and  veteran dealer Terry Winchell ,who is credited as co-author. He’s even donating the proceeds of the book to an education  fund for Native American children.

“Living with Native American Art” presents and describes 160 objects from the Hirschfield  Collection, of which  around 70% are beaded, the balance being made up of painted shirts, baskets and pottery. Alan and Berte Hirschfield love beads, particularly those of the Plains and Canada, and they are everywhere in this book.  And while  there are many other fine publications featuring Native American beadwork, there are two things make this one stand out.

The first is the impressive photographic skill of W. Garth Dowling. The pictures glow on the page with amazing detail, and many objects are also photographed in close up, or shot front and rear.

The second is the range of  personal insights  and memories that accompany many objects.  There’s a great depth of  knowledge  in this book, but it  is presented in an intimate and informal way.   We learn exactly how the Hirschfield’s love affair with American Indian art started – with baskets, which led to an almost accidental discovery of beadwork. We share the stories of how and why many of the pieces were acquired and what makes them special.  Hirschfield even tells us about his nervousness and self doubt at a major auction where he purchased a beaded bag  for an amount  that even a Hollywood executive had to think twice about.  (He still loves the piece and does not regret a cent he spent  on it   – and  who of us who are collectors  and hopeful bidders  could not recall similar moments of auction angst).

The Hirschfields go where their hearts take them and they like to collect objects in depth. They own many painted shirts, beaded octopus bags, pipe bags, beaded dresses  and  cradleboards. They are also particularly fascinated by figural beadwork that depicts horses, warriors, deer and buffalo, and they own several pieces made by the great  19th century Sioux artist,  Nellie Two Bears Gates.

On the other hand, because this collection was shaped by the personal whims and interests of its owners, there are some  common objects you will not find in this book.  There is one pair of leggings and one pair of riding boots, but not a single beaded moccasin for example. And while you will see many beaded horses, you will find vary little beaded horse tack. Clearly, unlike many private collectors, who seek at least one great example of everything, the Hirschfields have to like it before they buy it, and then they tend to  buy more than one example.

Finally, one does not usually mention the publisher’s contribution in a book review, but I think that Gibbs Smith have delivered design and production values of such quality, that I would not be surprised if this book were to win a design award at some upcoming bookfest. My only negative is the lack of an index, which does not make it easy to use as a reference work.

This book is currently available at Amazon for between $40 and $50. Buy yourself a copy as a Christmas gift before it goes out of print.

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Were the old tribal bead workers colour-blind?

19th century photograph of a young Zulu couple. Did 18th and 19th century tribal bead makers have a perception of colour that was different from ours?


Tribal bead workers are almost always meticulous perfectionists. A woman’s beadwork, worn in public by her husband, her children and herself, made important statements about her skill, creativity as an artist, diligence as wife and mother and peer group status. It also indicated the wealth of her family and her personal rank in the community.

So, if peer group approval was so important to any bead maker, why do we keep on finding “wrong” colours on beaded items? Why has the maker of a Batonka skirt from the banks of the Zimbabwe replaced traditional dark blue beads with green?  And why do some pieces mix several shades of one colour in the same piece?

The medallions on Batonka backskirts are invariably red, whiteand blue, so why has green been sustituted for blue in some of these?

 Three different reds, for example? This looks obviously wrong to us, but is it wrong to members the societies which produce the pieces?

I had always put these “errors” down to necessity or financial hardship. Beads have never been cheap for tribal people living in largely cashless societies, and in fact are now so expensive that they are being replaced with plastic strips and other inferior materials. Did the Batonka lady simply run out of dark blue beads? Were yellow beads in short supply, or did the variations simply not matter –yellowness being the only qualification?

There are at least four shades of yellow in this small Bushman fore apron form Namibia or Botswana.

Recently, I found a book that offered a fresh approach towards the use of colour in tribal art – it is called “Through the Language Glass, why the world looks different in other languages” by Guy Deutscher. It has already provoked a tribal art post from me (“Hooray for the red, white and black”, Praise Tribal Art, Oct 12 2012), but in this post, I want to look specifically at tribal bead work.

Deutscher’s theory is fairly radical, but it is based on a lot of research. He says that although tribal people live in a world with a blue day sky and a black night sky, red flowers, a yellow sun and green grass, their perception of the colour spectrum is culturally influenced and that this in turn affects and is affected by language and the net  results is a

A Zulu warrior painted by George French Angas in the 1840s.

limmited colour vocabulary. Most colours and distinctions of shade are simply not part of the old tribal languages and not important enough to be part of everyday speech.

This, by the way, is not a racist observation – Deutscher points out that in Ancient Greece, the cradle of Western civilisation, the poet Homer had a very limited colour vocabulary.  Subsequent research with tribal peoples (who were reckoned to be closest in lifestyle and culture to the Ancient Greeks than western societies) ,    revealed two very  fascinating things: First that red, white and black were the three primal colours all humans recognised, second that as colour awareness grew, it happened in a prescribed sequence – most languages expand their colour

20th century Zulu beadwork utilised a very broad palette of colours

repertoire in the same order – first  red, black and white, and then yellow, and then green, pink and orange and finally, blue, which apparently is always the last.

Another point worth mentioning is that when E.W Rivers, the Father of Anthropology, undertook a field trip to the Torres Straits (between Australia and New guinea in 1896, he noted that Mer Islanders had no trouble distinguishing variations in colour and shades – they knew they were there and could see all the distinctions of shade lightness darkness, etc, but they simply had no standard names in their language for these colours or much interest in using these adjectives to describe things.

A 1950s Xhosa collar in blue and pink

Rivers was astounded that old men could point up to the bright blue sky and describe it as “black”, just as Homer and the ancient Greeks did. Similarly, brown, pink and red were all referred to as red, and no distinction was made between yellow and orange.  Thus the Mer Islanders were not blind to colour variations, they just did not rate them as meaningful. Perhaps the same applied to the Zulu?


Zulu beadwork is widely recognised as some of the world’s best and most complex. It is produced in a rainbow of colours and there is even a code of meanings in bead colours. Yet the Zulu language has no separate words for blue and green – one of dozens of languages which exhibit this lack of distinction.

The beaded yoke of a superb Lakota Sioux dress

That wonderful book “South East African Beadwork” by Stevenson and Graham-Stewart tells us that although glass seed beads had been available in the colony of Natal since at least the 1830s, when they were introduced to the kingdom of Zululand, their distribution was controlled by the kings – Shaka, and later Dingane. Until the reign of Mpande began in 1840, ordinary people were not allowed to own or wear them except as a royal favour. Here again, supporting Deutcher’s colour thesis, the most popular early colours in the Zulu kingdom were red (the primal colour), white and blue, though contemporary writers also 

Native America and mainstream America unite when this Sioux vest proudly waves the US flag .

state that pink and green beads were popular from about 1850 onwards. I can also say that when I paged through South East African Beadwork, all of the earliest pieces were red, white, black and blue. 

The English-born artist George French Angas, (1822-1886), is famous for his paintings of the Zulu in Natal, the Aboriginal people of Australia and the Maori in New Zealand. His Zulu paintings, made in the reign of Mpande the1840s,  show men and women wearing only three colours of beadwork -  red/ pink , white and black or dark blue. Is it possible however, that the Zulu were actually using many more colours at this time?

And what are we to make of the closely allied Xhosa tribe in the Cape , who have been using  various blues and to supplement red, black  and white or centuries?

A super Ojibwa beaded jacket isnpired by European embroidery

Is Deutische correct about blue being the last colour to be named and discerned when here is a lot of blue in 19 century Zulu and Xhosa beadwork and in beadwork from many other areas of Africa, including East Africa(the Kikiyu and Kvorondo), and the Sudan (the Bagirmi). One thing we should bear in mind regarding Deutscher’s thesis is that although all humans seem to accept new colours in a prescribed order, there is no set speeds with which they can be accepted and become everyday concepts.

Almost all the anthropological research into colour perception mentioned by Deutscher took place in culturally isolated communities like the Torres Straits, where there was little

Old world vs. new world - a red, white and black belt made of hand ground shell beads from the geographically isolated Solomon Islands in the Pacific

chance of previous exposure to new colours in desirable forms.  In the case of Africa, there were centuries of contact with Arab and European explorers. The slave trade, for example, seems to have been financed largely with Venetian millefiori glass beads, and look at the colours in those!

I think that Deutscher’s assertion that blue was the last colour to be perceived, named and used in tribal societies has far too much evidence behind to be ignored, but at the same time,  the fastest accelerator of a wider colour vocabulary is cross cultural contact with traders and colonisers who introduced new objects and concepts.

And if Zulu beads challenge Deutscher’s status quo because the blue   beads was  recognised  so early, what are we to think about Native American beadwork? The many colours and complex patterns of Native American and Canadian First Nation beadwork show complete colour fluency.

A Venetian trade bead card circa 1900 - the colonial world's colour educator.

At the same time, we must remember that Native Americans had contact with Europeans since the 17th century. I think that this is significant because cross cultural contact between tribespeople and European invaders/traders/settlers could create an almost sub-conscious learning process spurred by the introduction of many novel objects (including beads) in many more colours. This is nowhere more apparent than in the beautiful floral scrolling of the beadwork of the Northern Woodlands and Great Lakes tribes such as the Ojibwa –  it is so clearly derived from European printed fabrics or embroidery that this must have been the inspiration.

To me, the most interesting aspect Deutscher’s theory is that that something as basic as the recognition and the act of naming of the colours of our world applies universally to all humanity. Thus, while we can instantly see the differences between Zulu, Dayak and Plains Indian beadwork, it has more in common than the obvious stylistic difference that set it apart.  If the development of a colour vocabulary is a universal evolution from red, black and white to a full spectrum, than it is one of the many shared concepts that make us human.

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Beads of the baTonga of the Zambesi and Lake Kariba.


A baTonga woman's backskirt decorated with beaded chevrons

The baTonga (or baTonka as they are sometimes called) are one of the most interesting minority tribes in Southern Africa and are very different in language and culture from the two majority tribes of Zimbabwe – the Matabele and the Mashona.

The baTonga are fishing folk who originally lived on the banks of the mighty Zambezi River, in what was then called Sothern Rhodesia, but when the river was dammed at the Kariba Gorge in 1960 to create the Lake Kariba – the largest dam in Southern Africa – their land was flooded and they were forced to resettle. Some now live on the shores of Lake Kariba, while others crossed to Zambia on the other side of the river.

A Barbara Tyrrell painting. The kneeling woman wears a beaded skirt while the standing owman wears an older style black hide skirt ..

Both the well known South African artist Barbara Tyrell and a white Rhodesian soldier who visited baTonga territory in the 1970s noted that around 40 years ago the baTonga were still living a tribal lifestyle. The women wore their traditional bead skirts and were bare breasted, and men and women alike had their cheeks scarred, removed their two front teeth, and pierced their noses to insert a stick through the septum. This self disfigurement apparently began when the slave trade was at its height in the latter half of the 19th century.  Aggressive neighbours working for Arab slavers would raid the Tonga, capture them and sell them into slavery – and it was hoped that by disfiguring themselves, they would be less attractive to the slavers. (They were not alone in this, other tribes also resorted to scarification, removing teeth and even inserting lip plugs to reduce their attractiveness to slavers).

Small beaded front apron of the type worn by both women in the drawing. The checked patter nis very popular.

Traditional baTonga women’s dress is distinctive and unique. It consists of two garments – a small cache sexe in the front and a larger back apron, both traditionally made form dark blue indigo trade cloth. The only other items regularly worn were bead belts and necklaces and coiled wire wristbands, plus one other object that was unique to the baTonga – . the little head pad that consisted of a ring of grass covered in cloth, with cowry shells attached around one surface. These rings were actually attached to  the hair and worn  permanently to protect the head when water pots were carried from the river on their heads.

A man's panel ecklace in a zigzag pattern.

The small front skirt was often beaded in small alternation checks or zigzag rows of red, white and blue beads, while the back skirt was decorated with evenly spaced rows of fan-shaped lozenges of red, white and blue beads. The back aprons are made in various sizes, possibly because their owners tended to increase in girth with age, or possibly because the larger skirts could display more beads, and therefore carried more status.

The skirts themselves must be a fairly recent (mid to late 19th century) innovation since trade beads and even trade cloth would have been extremely scarce in this remote area before this time. Barbara Tyrell’s always accurate paintings show one old baTonga woman wearing a black hide apron which probably preceded the beaded cloth ones. 

If the beading of these back skirts in fan shaped lozenges is a fairly recent custom as it appears to be, it was remarkably uniformly  adopted, since the aprons are instantly recognisable even though  quite a few variations were possible in terms of colour substitution – green for dark blue, for example, or the inclusion of a little yellow. One quite noticeable distinction is the row of beads that sometimes edges some skirts- perhaps this is a fashion from one side of the river only, since Lake Kariba effectively divided the baTonga into two populations in two countries.

A cowry shell head pad sewn into the hair as a base for steadying loads on the head

I addition to the distinctive skirts and fore aprons, baTonga women wear beaded neck rings, girdles and headbands, as do baTonga men. They are very skilful  at creating round  geometric neck rings which are made by winding cloth tightly round a thick length of copper wire and covering it with beads. Men often wear a small cloth panel neck ornament decorated with beads  in the same patterns as the women’s cache sexe but much smaller, and necklaces which have the sae decorative element  worn over the chest and the back of the neck are also popular and unique to the baTonga.

The wearing of traditional baTonga costume is dying out, (along with scarification, nose plugs and missing front teeth), and old skirts like the ones shown in this post are getting very hard to find.  At the same time, as with other tribal costumes in Southern Africa, baTonga dress can be modernised as a political statement of cultural identity. I have an outfit from the 1990s which covers a lot more flesh. It is beaded in the traditional colours and patterns, but also includes a fore skirt and a cape.

I am currently offering four examples of baTonga bead work for sale ,  to see them visit

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A Cameroon Grasslands beaded ceremonial palm wine vessel.

Such is the status of a beaded ceremonial wine gourd or jar that this Cameroon Grasslands king has placed one on either side of his throne.

Palm wine plays a very important social and ceremonial role in many West African societies. In the Cameroon Grasslands,  a large cultural area located in central Cameroons which is inhabited by a number of related peoples including the Bamun, the Bamileke and the Bamenda Tikar, palm wine is used at funerals, celebration of marriages, for performing traditional rites, and as a reward form the king or Fon to his loyal subjects on special occasions

To make palm wine, a palm sap collector climbs high into a Raffia palm, using a rope which joins his ankles around the trunk as a lever to hoist him upwards. Near the top, he makes a triangular cut into the male flower of a Raffia Palm and a reed with a small cup at the end is inserted  in each flower –  up to 150 litres of sap per tree per month can be milked in this way and the tree renews the supply every year.(The lazier way is to chop down and kill the palm, leave it lying for a week and then tap the trunk via bamboo tube).The sap is very sweet at first, but becomes more sour as the sugars in it are converted to alcohol over a week or two.

The basic container for palm sap, collected and left to ferment into wine, is a large calabash with a carrying handle and a wooden stopper. For large court ceremonies .dozens of these containers would be transported to the palace at the command of the king so that the dancers and guest could be refreshed during the proceedings.

Ceremonial palm wine containers were often fashioned out of clay for the use of the Fon and other members of his court, but in a few areas, notably Bamum, where ornate beadwork was very much a symbol of royalty, large and superb beaded wine jars were icons of elegant court life. These containers were obviously quite rare – try and find one on the internet and you will be surprised at how few and far between they are.

They were made in the same way as the ornate beaded statues and thrones of the Cameroons court – the object to be beaded was wrapped in hand loomed cloth, and the beads affixed with a curved needle

Stopper in th eform of a beaded bird

using lazy stitch – i.e. several beads were scooped up with the point of the needle at one tie and then fixed to the cloth in a row. (The same technique is used by the Ndebele of South Africa and the Native American Plains Indian when covering large areas of cloth or hide with beadwork.

The main body of the beaded palm wine vessel is made of a gourd, just as the traditional wine containers are, and this is attached to a wooden stand which holds it off the floor and keeps it stable. The entire structure is then covered in cloth and the beads sewn on.  Finally the ornate stopper is

The base is fashioned in the form of an animal,possibly a royal leopard.

caved, covered and beaded.  These stoppers often incorporate birds and animal icons which are very much part of Cameroons court art and which convey specific symbolic characteristics.

Cameroons beaded palm wine jars are beautiful and important examples of court art, and anyone who is fortunate enough to own one can count themselves blessed.

San Bushman beads of the Kalahari Desert, Southern Africa.

The typical stalking crouch of San hunters. They are wearing hide loin cloths and sandals and carry their small bows and poisoned arrows.

The Khosian people of South Africa, the Hottentots and the San, are small golden brown people rather than black who speak a language of complex tongue and palate clicks, and once inhabited Southern Africa right down to the tip of the Cape of Good Hope, before both black and white strangers settled their land and took the grass for cattle and the land for crops.

Because they regarded the invading cattle as a new species of antelope rather than domesticated property, and because itwas very hard to put them to work, the San were hunted down like wild animals in the Cape and shot from horseback like vermin in the 17th and 18th centuries. The last survivors eventually retreated into the harshest and driest areas of Southern Africa that neither black cattle herders nor white farmers wanted – the Kalahari and Namib deserts.

Beads are rare and treasured, so beaded adornment typically consists of a few strands round the neck, and a headband or hair medallions

Like the Australian Aboriginal people of the Western desert, the San Bushmen of Namibia and Botswana are renowned trackers and hunters and masters of survival in a harsh and dry environment. They are nomads, constantly moving in small family bands in search of game and water, staying alive by digging tiny wells in a dry river bed to sip a few mouthfuls of water as it seep upwards, burying ostrich eggshells filled with water for the dry times, even, in the harshest droughts, separating the water from the stomach contents of the grazing animals they shot for food with their poisoned arrows. They sometimes stalk and track an antelope for days before getting close  enough to shoot it without being observed. San women dressed and sewed  rawhide clothing and foraged fo bush foods, including edible bulbs, seeds and  insects. Termites were a particular delicacy.

The flightless ostrich was dangerous to hunt, as a kick from  their powerful legs could disembowel a hunter, but the large eggs n their guarded nests – each the equivalent of 24 hen’s eggs -  were a valued food sourceThe shells were also treasoured as natural water bottles and as the raw material for beads.The San made Africa’s finest ostrich egg shell beads.

A beaded child’s pubic cover. Beads were so hard to get hold of that there are three different shades of yellow in this small piece, not enough reds to complete the left lower triangle, and several other wandering colours.


To make them, the San first chipped the shell fragments roughly to size, pierced each one, then  strung them tightly into rigid rolls that could be smoothed on a  grove in a piece of soft sandstone until they were perfectly round and smooth.
They were then used to make headbands and edge clothing. The San also loved glass trade beads – which were rare and hard to obtain. As the San became more westernised, so glass beads become more plentiful and those San living on the tourist trials were soon wearing a lot of beadwork, but the essence of San beadwork is scarcity and restraint. I  have  a small child’s yellow cache sex that demonstrates this very well  –a small rectangle of beadwork  which contains three shades of yellow beads because they were so hard to come by.

An older San woman wearing beaded tabs or medallions in her hair.

The same restrained use of beads can be found in San clothing – traditionally made of rawhide.  Aprons are edged in glass or eggshell beads, but never covered  in them. Instead of the wide expanses of beads common in Native American and Bantu beadwork, the San would scatter small medallions of beads across a skirt or loin cloth, decorating the hide rather than covering it.

San beadwork is neither plentiful not opulent and it  reflects the hardship and scarcity of material possessions in their lives.Many San men and women don’t wear beads at all except on special occasions, or perhaps wear a strand or two on the wrist or around the neck. When beads were worn, the beaded headband seems to have been the most common article – and the one which demanded the largest quantity of beads.The headbands could be of ostrich eggshell beads or trade beads, and were as wide as the owner could afford – obviously a status symbol. More common were the small beaded tags or medallions which could be tied into the hair -usually just a few, though some wore a dozen or more in their hair.

San woman's cosmetic container


San beadwork may not be as opulent  or showy as that produced by many other African peoples,but it has its own special charm. This magical piece is a San woman’s  cosmetic compact is made form the shell of a tiny geometric turtle about 2 inches or 5 cm wide. It contains aromatic ground herbs and bark to be dusted over the body. The shell is sealed at one end, and closed at the other with a piece of rawhide used as a powder puff. This superb little example has a fully beaded cover, others are edged with ostrich eggsell beeads. Important – please note: The Geometric tortoise is an endangered species and export of these containers is banned under CITES regulations.

Sadly, like other nomadic and hunter-gatherer tribes around the world, the culture of the San is constantly under threat. Just as the rain forest is being cleared beneath the feet of the natives of South America to plant soybeans, so the San are being driven out of the wasteland that  nobody else wanted long ago.  In the Kalahari Desert of Botswana, for example the government wants to access the rich mineral deposits under the dry desert earth and is to forcing the San out of their desert lands into permanent settlements. When that happens their unique culture will surely and sadly fade away

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Beadwork from the Indian Kingdom of Saurasthra.


Two charming head pads in the Saurashtra style. They are used to cushion the heavy water pots carried from the well on women’s heads. The example on the left is decorated with lions, the one on the right with elephants. Author’s collection.

While glass beads are used today in necklaces and bangles in many parts of India, glass seed beads seem to have been introduced only after, 1700, and only in one small area of this vast continent – the Kingdom of Saurashtra in what is today southern Gujarat State. (Suarashtra’s name survives in the modern city of Surat  in Gujarat). In fact, the art of bead embroidery was only practiced in one small area of modern Gujarat, where it is associated with the ancient city of Kutch, and was limited to only  two villages, which are said to be the only places producing this distinctly Indian style. Furthermore, this beadwork was produced only by members of the Kathi land owning caste (and presumably their servants). Sadly production apparently ceased in the 1940s.

The matching left and right hand sides of a toran doorway hanging – they hung on either side of the doorway, with the tabs at the bottom pointing outwards, and they would once have been linked by a valance over the lintel. This pair is for sale at

The shapes and forms of the beadwork echoed those of the embroidery and appliqué handwork of the area such as ornamental hangings and valances for doorways (toran), embroidered decorations for bullocks, horses and carts used in wedding processions and everyday objects such as fans and pads used to support heavy water jars when carried on the  women’s  heads.

The beadwork itself is both distinctive and delightful, consisting of naive animals, people, gods, flowers and trees, usually scattered on a white background.

Door valance (toran) featuring birds, dancers, trees and flowers. Author’s collection.

The purpose of these toran door hangings was not merely to decorate the entrance of the home on special occasions, but also to welcome the visitor, and to protect the house and the household. The peacock at the very top of the pair of hangings above  is a very common design element as it is a sign of welcome to guests, while embroidered gods and goddesses would also offer their protection. Other common elements were royal lions, cows and bulls, dancing maidens and may other charming images.

Festive covers for the orns of the bullock dawing the bridal cart.

An Indian wedding is a joyous affair, whether it takes place in a palace or a village compound. The bride and groom are treated like royalty for that wedding day, and the groom arrives on a splendid horse, while the bride is often transported from her home on a bullock cart covered  with flowers. In the old kingdom of Shaurashtra, the groom’s horse and the bullock pulling the cart are often decorated with  special beadwork coverings.

Apart form this small Shaurashtrian enclave near Kutch, I know of only once other Indian community that makes extensive use of beads – the Banjara nomads of  India, who are historically  related to the Romany gypsies of Europe and  produce superb belts and dress ornaments, often combining beads with embroidery , mirror fragments and coins.

A beaded mask for a bridal bullock.

The wandering Banjara also call Gujarat home, and their beadwork is often described as Kutchi (anglicised to Coochie)and was surely inspired by the magnificent beadwork of the ancient kingdom of Saurashtra.

Important notice: Many of my readers may find English easy to read,  but difficult to write. Please feel free to  post comments in English, Dutch, French, German, Italian  or Spanish if it makes it easier for you. I can read German, Dutch and French and have friends who can help translate the rest.

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Serue beaded dance aprons of West Papua.

A superb mainly blue and red serue offered for sale at Michael Evans Fine Art, 


These dance aprons from the Geelvink Bay and Yapen Island on the northern tip of New Guinea have always fascinated me. They are one of the very few large glass bead objects (roughly 24 inches / 60 cm in width and depth) that are manufactured in New Guinea, and they are worn by both men and women on ceremonial occasions.

A classic serue design for sale at Tribal Art Finder,

The aprons, called serue are traditionally made by women of the family of the bride or groom for presentation to the other family as part of the formal exchange of valuables that accompanies a traditional marriage, after which they would become family heirlooms.

The geometric patterns and fringe of torn fabric strips are very distinctive, yet very different from traditional patterns found on woodcarving and bark cloth paintings from West Papua (once called Dutch New Guinea). Fortunately, I came across a recent article by Dirk Smidt, retired ex-curator of curator of both the PNG National Museum and the famous Leiden ethnographic museum in the Netherlands, which explains the origins of these fascination aprons.(Dirk Smidt: “Some ethnographic reflections on the origins of the art of Northwest Papua” in Framing the Art of North West New Guinea, Asia Pacific Journal of Anthropology, 2011.)

Another outstanding design on offer at Michael Evans Fine Art,

Dirk points to the century’s long history of contact between Papua New Guinea and the Moluccas, particularly the islands of Ternate and Tidore, which ruled by independent sultans and held power over
North West New Guinea, demanding annual tributes that were paid in slaves, bird of paradise feathers, dry sea slugs (trepang) and other trade valuables. Both the Indonesians and the West Papuans were great boat builders and sailors and there was plenty of contact. (One of the new techniques learned form the Indonesians was the building of planked boats to replace dug out canoes.

An intricate 1950s apron illustrated in "Art of North West New Guinea edited by Suzanne Greub.

In fact, the Raja Empat island group, between the Moluccas and the north coast of New Guinea, became known as a haven for pirates, from which local bands (including ethnic New Guinea sailors) could raid and trade for slaves, who were usually prisoners of war, as well as  trade goods and gold (often paid as ransoms for wealthy captives).

The aprons, which are always finished with  a heavy fringe of torn strips of  trade cloth are always beautifully beaded and come in an amazing variety of sizes, colours and patterns which would  have meaning for their makers. Dirk Smidt compares these patterns to local tattoo patterns which have a powerful protective function. There are many geometric shapes and intricate repeat patterns similar to the  kaif patterns that are  carved into West Timorese lime containers to record a family tree.

A serue from my personal collection.

At the same time, they give the women who make them an opportunity for creativity and self expression – they are truly beautiful  personal statements!

Important notice: Many of my readers may find English easy to read,  but difficult to write. Please feel free to  post comments in English, Dutch, French, German, Italian  or Spanish if it makes it easier for you. I can read German, Dutch and French and have friends who can help translate the rest.

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Beaded wedding capes – not a lot of history and a little mystery.

A beaded wedding cape worn over the shoulders by a young bride on her wedding day and for a brief period thereafter in order to display her status and her respect for her new in-laws.

This heavy and impressive beaded garment  consists of a red  trade cloth backing to which is sewn a neck band  in a contrasting blue fabric at the top , decorated with a single band of beadwork from which  three long bead tassels hang.  Where the tassels end, 12 separate bands of beadwork in several different styles and patterns have been joined together and sewn onto the bottom ¾ of the cloak. Obviously, this garment represents an enormous amount of work and a considerable investment in beads.

The cloak is worn on the wedding day and for a short period thereafter on order to show hlonipa (respect) to the new husband’s parents and senior family members, since the young couple will invariably move into the grooms family compound where she will be the most junior member for a time. Hlonipa, which is pronounced phonetically something like “th-lornipper” is shown by covering the shoulders (and sometimes the head), looking down demurely at all times, and never speaking unless spoken to.

Detail - top section


What is fascinating about these capes, apart from their physical presence, is the fact that they are made by several hands in several beading styles and the beaders include the bride-to-be, her mother and grandmother, and possibly other family members or even close friends. Each of these beaders contributes at least one strip in the colours, styles and patterns appropriate to their age and each cloak then becomes a living history of beadwork over several generations.

All clear so far – but the mystery is where this garment actually originates? Is it in fact, Zulu in origin or Zulu by adoption? It is certainly not a traditional article of Zulu dress, since there is no historical records of museum exhibits of old 19th century or even pre-WW2 beaded trade cloth wedding cloaks, Nor is there any record of a specifically beaded hide garment that has been replaced by a trade cloth garment or blanket in modern times, as worn today by Ndebele and Xhosa married women.

Ntwane bride by Barbara Tyrrell.

My query as to the origin of this garment is based on the fact that Barbara Tyrrell, the famous South African tribal costume artist, identifies it as originating with the Ntwane tribe, who are a tribe of Swazi origin who were displaced by tribal wars, and ended up living in the Drakensberg Mountains of Natal, sandwiched between the Zulu and Bapedi (Northern Sotho) tribes. Tyrrell’s painting shows the young bride wearing her cape, together with the Zulu black leather skirt and red head dress of marriage, while leaning on a stick to cause her to look downwards and show hlonipa. Since this is a field drawing, and Tyrrell is renowned for the accuracy of her field notes, I have no doubt that this is a painting of a genuine Ntwane bride and wedding cape made in the 1960s or earlier.

Note the western alphabet letters and human figures, very non-traditional elements. This example has no tassels.

In spite of this, there are numerous examples of these capes in museums and galleries which are clearly identified as Zulu in origin, but none of them much earlier than 1960 – 1970, judging by the beadwork styles of the modern bands.  This is most likely the result of cross cultural borrowing between the Zulu and the Ntwane.  It’s certainly true that Ntwane tribal dress is much influenced by their Zulu rather than their Pedi neighbours, but who borrowed from whom in this case

A second factor which supports the argument for cross cultural borrowing  is that these cloaks  are not made by   the coastal Zulu,  All the attributed examples I can find cite inland areas as the collection place – close to Ntwane territory. A third factor  is  

note the non-Zulu colours, row of metal studs at the neck and Pedi-insired rope neckace - this looks like an Ntwane example

that there are so many names for this cloak – isiKoti, isiBheklane and umQondo –  implying that it may be called a different name in different localities because it is an exotic introduction.

There is a lot of information on the cloaks themselves in Hlengiwe Dube’s book, “Zulu Beadwork” in which she suggests that certain bands are made in set styles by certain people, that this is constant for all examples and that each band has a fixed meaning. The only problem is that this is not always so. One example I found is in almost pure white. Another example in mainly orange and green beads also breaks all the rules. .

Dube  also suggests that the number bead tassels hanging from the shoulder is significant. One central tassel, made from beads saved from  bride’s puberty belt, symbolises that she is a virgin, two tassels symbolise she is a second wife.  My example has three tassels – so presumably the lady who wore it was not a virgin – not a huge problem in a society where children born out of wedlock were regarded as proof positive of the mother’s fertility.

So, finally, what can we say  about these impressive garments? Beads are fashion for tribal people and fashions change,so it is no problem that they seem to be post-1960 in origin. They are genuine cultural artefacts worn by brides to show hlonipa  respect and their newlywed status. They are worn by  members of the Ntwane and Zulu tribes  living inland rather than on the coast. Each one is sewn by several different hands and generations, and each band would have a meaning, at least to its maker, and this meaning would be communicated to  the bride to be and also to the community. Who needs a western-style wedding dress when you have all that going for you?

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Mrs Ida Dyer, pioneer American bead collector.


“Fort Reno” or Picturesque “Cheyenne and Arapahoe Army Life” Before the Opening of “Oklahoma” by Mrs. D. B. Dyer, 1896, reprinted 2005. Buy it now at Amazon.

Ida Dyer’s life was the stuff that TV soap operas are made of. Married at 21 to a man who was not particularly pleasant or faithful to her, all her children dead in childhood, a divorce followed a few years later by remarrying the same tyrant, a life of financial ups and downs, and a final bitter divorce and a court case in which she sued for a share of the estate which she said was rightly hers. Sounds like a season of “Days of Our Lives”, except for one totally unexpected twist. It  resulted in the creation of one of America’s most famous collections of Plains Indian bead work and traditional dress and thewriting of this book, first published in 1896.

Ida’s husband, Daniel Dyer, was appointed Indian Agent in two important Indian agencies  n Oklahoma from1870 – 1885, a time when the memory of the Indian Wars was fresh and Native American tribes were being shifted off their traditional lands onto the reservations. Plains Indian life in this period was still largely traditional. The Indians s lived in tepees and commonly wore tribal dress.  Here, surrounded by the living culture, Ida dyer became fascinated with Indian life and above all Indian beadwork and clothing and avidly started to collect it

Red Snake a Cheyenne squaw , with her baby in cradleboard. One of nine photogrpahs in the book.

“Colonel “Daniel Dyer (the rank was honorary rather than military) was first posted to the Qawpaw Indian Agency (Qawpaw, Shawnee, Seneccs, Miami, Senecca, Wyandotte. Ottawa and Medoc nations)as a clerk,  later promoted to Agent. He was then transferred to the Darlington Cheyenne – Arapaho Agency near Fort Reno from 1875 – 1885, when he was forced to stand down as a result of his high handed treatment of the Indians in his care.

Fortunately for us, Ida wrote a book about her Darling ton experiences called “Fort Reno” or “Picturesque Cheyenne and Arapahoe Army Life Before the Opening of Oklahoma” .published ten years later in 1896, in which she gives detailed descriptions of daily life, her encounters with Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes people, and her own unhappy marriage (disguised as a thirds party narrative).

This is what she had to say about her growing fascination with Indian beadwork and dress:
I veritably became a ‘curio- fiend and no tribe in the remotest parts of space escaped me… I penetrated every corner with a restless energy, and practical turn, by travelling farther, going oftener, probing deeper, seeing more, spending more, and getting more, than any other seeker in the same direction”. 93, 4)

After the divorce and many ups and downs, including a bitter court case, in which she claimed that the Indian artefacts were collected by her and not her husband, she eventually sold them to the Kansas fCity for a token amount just before her death and as a result the Dyer collection is currently in the Kansa City Museum. And what a collection it is.

It consist of over 600 pieces of superb Plains Indian beadwork circa 1860 (and not 6,000 as erroneously stated in the introduction to the 1992 reprint of the book by), and it is guaranteed to make any Native American bead collector swoon.

The Friends of Kansa City Musuem are sponsoring the restoration of this cradleboard collected by ida Dyer.

The collection is particularly strong in women’s and children’s articles of beadwork and dress – particularly cradle boards,  children’s dolls and children’s clothes – a bias which has led some commentators to suggest that her collection echoes Ida’s  tragic loss of her own children and  a resulting attraction to the children of the Indian families about her – although this could simply be the  natural bias  of any woman collector, who would probably not be as focused on scalps, war parties and male battle dress as male collectors trsditionally were.

The Dyer collection has not been on public display for many years, although there is a hope that it will get the permanent display and home it deserves once Corinthian Hall, the magnificent mansion destined to become the new home of the Kansas City Museum, is finally refurbished.

I was fortunate enough to   be granted a private tour of the collection in storage in 2009, and believe me it is stunning. Many superb cradle boards, drawer after drawer of beaded moccasins, scabbards, leggings, pipe bags, tobacco bags, dance ornaments, umbilical fetishes, rawhide garments, horse trappings belts and personal adornments in stunning profusion.

Given that the early collectors of Native American artefacts, particularly those in authority over a vanquished  Indian foe, were not always ethical – for as an Indian, who could really refuse  a fine piece of beadwork demanded by the all powerful Indian Agent if he either requested it as a gift or  demanded to be allowed to  buy it? Ida Dyer’s saving grace as a collector was that she actually took the trouble to get to know many of the local Indians – men and woman – as individuals and formed friendships with them, and I like to think that many  – even most – of the objects in the Dyer  collection were either purchased fair and square or donated freely.

This buckskin doll is another Friends of Kansas City Museum restoration project. Visit their website to support this great project.

Whatever the provenance of each piece may be, however, we can only be grateful for Ida’s acquisitive nature – for without it, many of not all of these magnificent objects would possibly never have survived.

When the grand project of restoring Corinthian Hall as the future Kansa City Museum is complete, the Dyer collection will once more be displayed in all its glory,  And then –hopefully – the museum will one day publish a book on it, so we can all enjoy these treasures.

Indeed, the eventual opening of Corinthian Hall will give Native American art   collectors two good reasons to visit Kansa City Missouri, the other being the Nelson Atkins Museum of Art, where renowned parfleche expert Gaylord Torrence presides over an impressive collection; (Indeed, I owe Mr Torrence a debt of thanks for introducing me to Ida Dyer and her book and the Kansas City Museum collection).

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Warning: This is not a South East Asian sun hat.

Though it is just about the same shape and size as the light-weight, conical and sometimes beaded sun hats worn by farmers and country people in Kalimantan and Borneo, this beaded object is not a hat. It is, in fact, a beaded Batak food cover from Sumatra used to cover a platter of food at a feast, a very much rarer object.

These objects are really beautifully beaded, but they can be tricky to identify. I have only ever owned two examples, and I bought them both on eBay described as beaded Dayak hats, an easy mistake to make if you have never seen one before. Even the experts can be fooled. There is one example on page 136 of the normally reliable “Beadwork. A World Guide” by Crabtree and Stallybrass which is wrongly identified as a tourist hat from Bali (though in their defence I must admit it is a crude example, obviously made for sale). This photograph shows the underneath and reveals the coarse fibre bast frame to which each bead is individually attached. Note the fringe of bead tassels round the lower edge, indicating that the covers, and the dished they covered were carried on the head or at shoulder height.

These food covers were traditionally made as trousseau and wedding gifts and kept as family heirlooms, used to dramatically present each dish and decorate the food table when the food was laid out for a wedding or funeral feast, thus adding to the status of the family offering the feast. The floral and abstract patterns in the beadwork are typically Batak and reminiscent of those found on traditional wedding Batak baskets like this one, used to present food or gifts to the bride and groom.


It is actually very easy to tell the difference between one of these food covers and a beaded Dayak hat. First of all, the hats are intentionally light weight, so that they can be comfortably worn, and are therefore never fully beaded.  The beading itself consists of a decal, round or star shape, at the apex of the cone. The hats were quite flimsy and often wore out, but when they did, the beaded panels would be removed and re-used.

In addition to the beaded decal, Dayak hats, particularly those made by the Kayan and Kenyan Dayak,  are often decorated with additional cloth appliqués, or embroidered patterns in contrasting colours. The construction of the sun hats is also quite different, being made of three overlapping palm leaves woven on a light rattan frame.

The illustration  below, from Heidi Murnan’s  “Beads of Borneo”, which is he only specific reference  I know on Dayak beads,  shows three Kenyan or Kayan hats with star shaped decals, appliques and embroidery.

From Beads of Borneo by Heidi Munan, Curator, Sarawak Museum, Editions Didier Millet, 2004.

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