A Lot of unanswered questions.


Lot 82, 49 pieces of South Afroian tribal beadwork collected in the 1930s, reserve $20K - $30K

  Any fellow  bead lover  perusing the catalog for Sotheby’s upcoming tribal sale in New York would have immediately noticed Lot 85, described as “49 Northern Nguni (Zulu, Swazi and Transvaal Ndebele) and Southern Nguni (Xhosa) Beadworks and Jewellery, South Africa”. If you did, I wonder if it left you as perplexed as it did me?

The 49 pieces of beadwork are cataloged as the property of The Robbins Center For Cross Cultural Communication in Washington and are attributed to two different collectors – Grete Manheim, a professional photographer, and Caroline Wagner, both of whom collected them in South Africa during the 1930s.

The Robbins Center is a well known and highly respected organisation which donated its foundation collection of artworks to the newly formed Museum of African Art in 1964, (it became part of the Smithsonian in 1979), but these two collections were acquired relatively recently, in 1991 (Wagner) and 1994 (Manheim). 

So far so good. But when I took a look at the large photograph and several close ups illustrating this lot, I noticed several of things that bothered me. First of all, modern museums keep formal records, yet the components of these two collections had simply been jumbled together, with no way of knowing what had been collected by Ms Manheim and what had been collected by Ms Wagner – since collection details tell you a lot about the collector as well as the collection, this was a disappointment. I was also disappointed that there were none of Ms. Manheim’s photographs included in the catalog – there would have been plenty to photograph in 1930’s South Africa. 

Second, the objects on display simply do not look like a representative sample of South African tribal beaded body ornaments that might have been common pre-WW2 and  both collections were acquired too recently to simply be 49 old pieces swept together from the dusty corners of some long forgotten museum drawer or storage box. 

When I first started collecting in the 1970s, beadwork from 1930 – 1960 was still plentiful and authentic used pieces were stocked by almost all of the many “Curio” shops that could be found in the capital cities. They were also as cheap as chips. Authentic and beautiful old Zulu, Ndebele and Xhosa pieces could be purchased for less than $10, and $100 – $150 would have purchased museum quality – and you can divide those prices by at least 100 to get an idea of the buying power of the 1930s currency in the 1970s.  Yet in spite of the ready availability of impressive pieces, almost all the objects in the main photograph are pieces of quite ordinary quality.

The doll,beaded gourd, matchboxes and two sets if ear plugs. The object ion the left is a Zulu snuff tube necklace.

There are a few small Zulu pieces that  are less common and more interesting, notably the two hair ornaments built on bicycle wheel spokes and the two beaded matchboxes used by Zulu dandies to light their ornate pipes (the Xhosa too decorated matchboxes, which were sold new and filled with safety matches for one cent a box when I was a kid and probably a fraction of that in the 1930s). A pair of Zulu horn earplugs is also if interest, as well as an old courting doll and there is one small necklace incorporating the old greasy butter yellow, pink and red white-heart beads that were favored in the 19thcentury. The relatively few Xhosa pieces are old and authentic, but not spectacular – a necklace, two leg bands (one with a goatskin fringe), a net-beaded gourd ad one or two other bits and piece. Of the rest, much of it seems to be in quite un-traditional colours and I can’t help thinking that it was made for sale to tourists outside hotels and at the docks where the cruise liners moored.

The catalog notes by Carolee G. Kennedy are accurate, but extremely generic and do not discuss the individual components of this lot individually or examine the past history of the collections. Were these two old collections donated to the Robbins Centre and therefore accepted out of politeness in spite of the quality? Or have the two original collections already had the eyes picked out of them by a tribal art dealer before or after they were donated, leaving the less attractive portion behind?  We may never know. On the other hand, an auction is a very effective price fixing mechanism, and we will soon find out if these 49 pieces reach the estimate.

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Buttons ‘n Beads.

A tiny Xhosa beaded amulet holder about 1 1/2 inches or 3 cm tall is embellished with a mother of peal button at each corner.

By the end of the nineteenth century, Southern Africa was the world’s largest consumer of European beads and, since a button is no more than a flat bead with two or more holes in it instead of one, it’s quite strange that so few tribal bead workers took to buttons in a big way. In fact, only one tribe did. The Xhosa of South Africa made buttons as distinctive a part of their tribal costume as beads.

It all must have started back in the 19th century, when Europeans settlers and traders were entering   the interior of the Cape of Good Hope and occupying land there, bringing trade goods including beads and buttons with them. There are old and probably apocryphal stories of little settler children living on the frontier who were abducted by Xhosa and later returned safe and unharmed, but minus all the buttons on their clothes.

An unusual 1930's Fingo beaded collar with a button border all the way round.

During the second half of the 19th century, buttons as well as beads would have been sold in the frontier trading stores along with sugar, tobacco and other basics, but that does not mean that the Xhosa immediately took to them. The stores would have also stocked needles, for example, but many traditional beaders preferred the long tail sinews of an ox or monkey to a needle and thread because the dry sinew  was stiff and you didn’t need a needle to thread the beads onto it. Shiny little mother of pearl buttons must have been a fashion that caught on in Xhosa territory and were probably  initially a status symbol because they cost more to buy than beads

Fragment of a young Fingo girl's breast apron. Trade cloth with appliqued bklack braid design, beads, buttons and cerise wool pompoms.

Buttons, the small white mother of pearl two-hole type the Xhosa preferred, were probably originally sewn onto supple tanned hide belts, skirts, headdresses, bags  and capes, but by the 19th century, two more changes had made buttons even more popular. One was the introduction of the coarse white cotton trade cloth or sheeting that replaced tanned hides – so much easier to sew the buttons on to.  The other was black cotton braid that could be sewn onto the sheeting to make patterns and edges, and which looked even more impressive when contrasted with the shiny mother of pearl buttons.

I would go so far as to say that a profusion of mother of pearl buttons almost invariably indicates that the origin of a piece is Xhosa or one of the culturally related tribes like the Fingo or mFengu. Rows of buttons were sewn onto clothes as borders and patterns and used to embellish the bead work itself.  As you can see in several of these photographs and the Xhosa developed a technique of threading a couple of beads between the two fixing holes to make the buttons even more attractive.

A Xhosa man's bag face. Tradecloth, black braid, beads and buttons.

While none of the other South African tribes took to buttons as enthusiastically as the Xhosa did, they do pop up from time to time, often as plain white shirt buttons rather than the old fashioned mother of pearl buttons the Xhosa love. I have an old Bagananwa (South Pedi) dance skirt that  is trimmed with buttons  as well as an old Ngwane rawhide maternity apron in which the two points of at the bottom of the apron have been embellished with multiple rows of four-hole type white buttons. (The Ngwane are a displaced tribe of Swazi origin who are neighbours of the Zulu).

The Zulu themselves had no liking for shirt buttons, but one or two of the heavy old conical brass coat and military buttons were often incorporated into their beadwork in the 19th century, and the tribes of the Natal Midlands still use rows of modern brass buttons on their women’s belts and skirts.

Outside South Africa, you sometimes find the odd large, white button  as a centrepiece in a Maasai beaded design, but apart from that, the only other African bead makers I know

Fragment of an Ngwane protective pregnancy apron showing multiple rows of buttons decorated with red and blue beads.

who regularly use  buttons are the Fergana of Ethiopia, who live in the higher altitude coffee growing region. They commonly make a small pendant of beads on leather which is decorated with several buttons, usually multicoloured and sometimes unmatched.

Outside of Africa, the only tribes I know of who use buttons like beads are those of Pakistan and Central Asia, but they invariably use them in appliquéd designs on embroidery rather than to accompany or accentuate beadwork.

Central panel of a Bagananwa (South Pedi) dance apron of triangular sections. Beads, buttons, string, wool.

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The Beaded Horse.

A Cree pad saddle, circa 1890.

It’s a scene we remember from hundreds of Hollywood westerns -  a troop of Native American horsemen gallops across the plains shouting war cries while  loosing off a shower of arrows from the saddle,  or with their rifles blazing at the US Cavalry  or a beleaguered settler family. It is such a cliche, you might think that the mustang was native to North America. It wasn’t.

Horses were brought to Mexico in the 15th century by the Spanish invaders and by the 16th century, they were widely established, mainly because the colonial  ranchers  needed them to  mount the local vaqueros who herded their cattle. That was when the Native American plains tribes started raiding and capturing them.

An elaborately beaded Crow woman;s saddle with a raised front and back and beaded stirrups.

For Plains tribes such as the Comanche, Crow, Cheyenne, Sioux and Blackfoot, captured Spanish horses transformed Native American life completely since the unique combination of the horse, the buffalo and the open prairie made it possible to outrun the buffalo herds for the first time instead of stalking or ambushing them. In fact, horses changed the entire Plains Indian economy. Where once status was measured in coups and scalps, it could now also be measured in numbers of horses an individual owned, since more horses meant more buffalo and greater wealth. One tribe, the Blackfoot, made war almost exclusively to capture horses rather than to acquire territory or defeat enemies.

Horse motifs, particularly when ridden by warriors, were poplar in Sioux pictorial vests.

The plains tribes soon become expert riders and  within a very few decades the horse had become an indispensable  part of Native American life and were used for buffalo hunting, warfare and transporting buffalo skins, tepees and other loads. At the same time, the plains tribes were apparently more renowned for capturing horses in battle or catching and breaking wild mustangs than breeding horses – though one tribe, the Nez Pierce, specialised  in   breeding the beautifully patterned Appaloosa horse.

Considering the importance of the horse to the plains tribes and their own ornate ceremonial dress, you would think it would be quite natural to bead horse blankets and horse tack, but again, you would be wrong. Indian mounted warriors traditionally rode bareback and used only a length of rawhide tied as a halter for reins – no saddle, no bridle, no bit – and the braves were often as unadorned as their mounts, although the horses and riders themselves were painted for battle.

Beaded horse gear may not have been an everyday sight a hundred years ago. There is none to be seen in this photograph of six mounted chiefs.

In fact, in many photographs of mounted Native Americans taken in 1890s and early 1900s, almost all of the horses are totally undecorated, except for a woven saddle blanket, although some otherwise undecorated horses sported a beaded chest panel hanging from their necks.

In a photograph of  six chiefs taken in the 1920s, for example, four are wearing their war bonnets, and all seem to be wearing some beadwork, but the horses are undecorated.

The evolution of Native American beaded horse gear is interesting. Early saddles  evolved from simply cinching a buffalo skin around the horse’s body for added comfort  to  a padded pillow of hide (called a pad saddle)  stuffed with grass or animal hair, and sometimes beaded  at the front and rear.  Some tribes carried empty pads on horse raiding expeditions so that they could be stuffed with grass to make the ride home on a stolen horse more comfortable.

Another type of Indian saddle was the frame saddle, a wood or horn frame held together by a green hide which shrunk  when it dried. These usually had a high pommel front and back and the most attractive of them were the Crow women’s saddles, which were often fully beaded from  the late 19th century onwards. 

As the plains became settled,  western and Spanish saddles and bridles, often boldly ornamented in silver, influence the  native tribes and beaded saddles became more common  among the by now displaced tribes.

A fine Lakota horse mask with openings for the horse's eyes and ears.

 I have seen stuffed or fibreglass horses dressed in full regalia circa 1900 – 1920 in many US museums, including the fabulous Field in Chicago, but the most unexpected example I have come across was a magnificent specimen in the Museum of Ethnology in Berlin, a reminder of the huge amount of interest in American Indian life in Germany  in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

As you would expect, each plains tribe produces article of beaded riding tack  base  on its own  beadwork designs and aesthetics.  The items beaded closely correspond to Spanish and American tack – saddles, bridles and saddle blankets, but the one object that was distinctly Native American was the horse mask, which fitted over the horse’s head on special occasions, or was set with faux buffalo horns to confuse and frighten the enemy during raids.

Magnificently beaded horse and rider at the famous Pendleton Roundup continue a proud tradition.

Ornately beaded tack was greatly  popularised by showmen like Buffalo Bull Cody who wanted a colourful spectacle to pull in the crowds and elaborately beaded saddlery is still a common sight at rodeos, roundups and major tribal events. In fact, the 19th century tradition of showmanship and  spectacle flourishes  to this day, with beaded horse tack being produced by many specialists beaders in the States.  This  beautifully dressed woman rider and her equally beautifully dressed horse who are taking part in  Oregon’s  famous Pendleton Roundup are proudly continuing  this tradition.

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Uniquely Xhosa: The Keeper Of The Heart necklace.


The legs tell the story,  that is why the skirt is raised to display them.The lady on the left is a dancing queen with her legs at an angle. The lady on the right is a hard working housewife, run off her feet looking after her family. Both these superb keepers are 1950′s or earlier.

The English  expression “to wear your heart on your sleeve” means  to be quite open and public about the way you feel about some person or cause. But how about wearing your heart around your neck? Xhosa women commonly wore a small beaded panel necklace thattells  the world exactly how they feel about themselves.

The Keeper figure can change to keep pace with changes in the wearer's life. This older lady has a keeper without legs to symbolise that her legs are worn out and she is now too old to dance.

The little stylized human figures in these panel necklaces, called “keepers of the heart”, are the bead maker’s own assessment of herself in a coded form and they are usually  very frank and the coded figure may  inform you that  the wearer considers herself to be hard working, a good dancer, or even too old to dance. For example, a beaded figure with the legs well clear of the skirt and at an angle, indicates someone who is proud of their dancing prowess.

The variations in the coded figures can quite subtle. A skirt well clear of the ground with straight legs has nothing to do with dancing – it  denotes that the wear is a practical, hard-working person, always  bustling about.

This seem pretty straight forward,   until you consider that these keeper of the heart symbols are often worn proudly by men.  Clearly it is a compliment to tell the world that your wife is a good dancer or a hard worker around the home, but the gender politics are mind blowing. Would anyone, for example, wear a necklace that tells the world his other half is lazy around the house or a lousy dancer? So I would say that these little tell-tale panels are

The man who wore this keeper proudly boasts that he has a relationship with two lively ladies, possibly a wife and a mistress.s

often more about values than reality. They give a woman the chance to  either project their  real reputation, or the reputation they  would like to have by displaying a coded figure on a keeper necklace.

And what about the relatively rare examples worn by men that show two female figures in the panel?  These may indicate that the many has two wives, which is possible under traditional Xhosa law, but would be an expensive process these days. On the other hand, it could also be a statement that the man has both a wife and a mistress, a situation which was quite common and well accepted in tribal custom.

The reason for this situation is that Xhosa mothers traditionally breastfed for 3 years, and during this period, sex with the husband was taboo, possibly as a form of birth control. This left a married man at a sexual loose end for years at a time, and as result it was socially acceptable for a husband to have an official mistress if he could afford one.

A married man dressed for an iBasi dance. His elanborate bead costri=ume was probnably made by his mistress and the large keeper he wears represents her, not the offical wife.

 This eternal triangle could survive for a lifetime and the wife and the mistress could be friends. There were even special dances for men and their mistresses called IBasi, which wives could attend as spectators only. Many of the most ornate male bead costumes were made by the mistress rather than the wife, possibly because she had more time for handiwork.

According to Joan Broster, the mistresses could be quite easily distinguished from the wives at the Ibasi and other events because  they were  not qualified to wear the traditional breast apron of a Xhosa married woman and wore brightly coloured tee shirts or singlets instead. They were, however entitled to flaunt an outsize headscarf.

This system may sound sexist to modern ears, but it did have the advantage of ensuring that women who were widowed, abandoned, divorced or unmarried could have the benefits and stability of an open and socially acceptable relationship with  a member of the opposite sex. And it was infinitely less unkind and brutal than the situation of the “tribal wife” and the “town wife” which arose under the oppression of the Apartheid labour laws that forced men to the city to work and did not allow them to take their wives and children with them.

One of the most interesting things about the beaded Keepers is their persistence into modern times – there are modern styles with complex loops and fringes under the panel and even non traditional colours, which indicate that these little necklaces may continue to play and important  role as a social symbol.

The keeper survives . The one on the left, in typical Thembu colours, features an ornate double loop fringe popular in the 1970s, while the example  on the right has a very untraditional red neckband and fringe

A very brief note on the Xhosa Nation: The Xhosa are proud and often conservative people and value their tribal traditions. Both Nelson Mandela and Miriam Makeba are well known representatives of the Xhosa people. Like the Zulu, the Xhosa are an amalgamation of several clans and tribes displaced by inter-clan warfare and white settlement in the 19th century. There are several Xhosa sub-tribes, of which the best known and most numerous are the Thembu. There are also  tribes whose language, dress and customs are closely allied to the Xhosa, such as the Pondo and the Fingo or Fengu. (The word” fingo” means refugee, as these people  fled across the Kei river, the border with the Cape Colony, into the Transkei,  which was free Xhosa territory at that time , in the aftermath of  a 19th century colonial war).

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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 amazon.com.

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  http://tribalartbrokers.net/beadcategory.asp?categoryId=3

See full bead work  catalog at www.tribalartbrokers.net/beadproducts.asp

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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.

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 http://tribalartbrokers.net/beaddetails.asp?itemId=ASC

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, http://www.tribalartfinder.com/product.php?productid=58

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, http://michaelevansfineart.com/Indonesian%20Dance%20Apron.html

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.

See tribal bead  catalog www.tribalartbrokers.net/beadProducts.asp

 Join me on facebook: http://www.facebook.com/david.said.165