What is the connection between African beadwork and African art ?

The relationship between Africans and beads goes as far back in time as one cares to go. Early terracotta statutes were decorated with rows and rows of bead necklaces.

Beadwork made of quartz have been found in excavations in Nigeria. Quartz is still being used in many regions of the continent to make beads. A hard, wet stone is used to polish them and then they are used for various types of beadwork.

Coral beads were used in Benin for making prestigious ornaments. Portrait heads of kings, cast in bronze were adorned with necklaces containing coral. Such jewels are still being used today. On feast days the Oba(king) appears in public dressed in a tunic made of coral beads and wears other ritual jewels made of coral and ivory.

Other stones used in African beadwork included bauxite, jasper, calcite and agate. Glass, however is the most popular and preferred material for making beads. The glass is usually recycled and re-melted and then cast in clay moulds to shape them.

The use of African beads vary depending on the region in which they are being used. In Nigeria for example, the Yoruba chief wore a beadwork crown that covered his face with a beaded veil. The nomadic tribes of Kenya are fond of wearing colorful and shiny ornaments. Among the Masai of Kenya, the women and warriors wear over forty different designs of beadwork. Among the Dinka people, warriors wore tight fitting chest corsets decorated with beads of different colors.

In the southern parts of Africa , among the Bantu-speaking tribes, beads are signs of social rank as well as magical protection against the spirits. Newly married women are given items made of white beads to wear on their head, back and breasts.

Beadwork has always and will continue to play an important role in African society. The diverse uses of beads among the various tribes show how one particular item can have different symbolic meanings for the people who use them.


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