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Posted by Florian Cheval on


The perfect integration of Beads in indigenous artistic traditions around the world demonstrate their undeniable versatility. Focusing on African art reveals commonalities between world cultures


Beads are most often small and spherical, made from materials sought after due to their qualities such as color, shine or rarity. By definition, beads have a hole drilled into them so that they can be strung together or attached to a surface by various techniques, and they are among the earliest decorative objects made by man: archaeologists working in Blombos Cave in Africa of the South have recently discovered forty-one marine shell beads ( Nassarius kraussianus ) made approximately seventy-five thousand years ago.

african glass bead

Studying these precious little objects provides a fascinating insight into the history of global trade, reminding us that people of different ages, places and cultures can have the exact same objects in mind. Although this article primarily examines the use of glass beads in African art , it recognizes that beads are a global medium of expression that has been used for millennia.


Glass beads have served as a staple item of trade since ancient times, and in the 16th century, the circulation of glass beads grew exponentially with the development of global trade. The pearl's intrinsic appeal – as well as the ease with which a relatively large quantity could be transported as cargo – made it an essential trade item.

African chevron glass bead

As these beads became an increasingly popular product, the tiny island of Murano, located about a kilometer north of Venice, Italy, became the glass bead manufacturing capital of the world. By 1606, there were 251 bead-making companies in Murano alone, and Venetian glassmakers are said to have made some one hundred thousand different varieties of bead types and designs for global export.

Glass beads have been easily incorporated into many artistic traditions around the world. In many sub-Saharan African societies, from the late 15th century onwards, European glass beads replaced, or were used in conjunction with, currencies made from locally sourced materials such as shell.

African glass bead kapkap head ornament

As was the case in the Pacific, the absence of local glass-making technologies meant that societies as geographically diverse as the Zulu peoples of South Africa and the Kongo of central Africa believed that beads were produced in an ancestral world. Invariably, the distribution of these precious objects was managed by society's elite, and beadwork therefore developed as an important expression of political authority.

From the late 15th century, coral beads imported from the Mediterranean were a major commodity in European trade with the Kingdom of Benin , in what is now Nigeria. All coral and red stone beads entering the kingdom were considered the private property of the king, or Oba , who had the exclusive right to distribute them to his various dependencies.

African Coral Ethnic Necklace

Only the oba was allowed to wear a full beaded costume which included, in addition to a crown and a beaded necklace, a beaded dress, and even beaded shoes. The status of other notables at court was evident in the relative sumptuousness of their beaded clothing. They materially demonstrated their closeness to the royal person wearing pearls. In this context, pearls were used to decorate and enhance the human body, to transform it into something more than itself, a symbol of power and wealth.

One of the essential elements of the oba's cast brass portrait heads is the depiction of these coral beads. In some of the earliest portrait heads, dating from the 16th century, it is clear that coral beads were an important commodity, although still relatively rare. In one of these 16th-century heads (top left), the oba is shown wearing simple beaded necklaces, with a latticework of beads on the head and strings of beads framing the face.

Obe head wearing African glass beads

In a more recent example from the 19th century (top right), the face is framed entirely by pearl regalia, with necklaces stacked on top of each other to reach just below the lip. Two wing-shaped beaded projections on either side of the crown are accented by individual cylinder beads and clusters on the latticework, making the body appear to be clad entirely in beads. Comparing these two sculptures shows the marked increase in the use of beads over a period of only a few centuries.


In the Grassfields region of western Cameroon, powerful rulers of competing states became great patrons of the art, and beadwork also expressed power. Each chief, known as a Fon , commanded lavish palace complexes with regalia for himself and for members of his court.

Throne of Njouteu in African pearl - Kingdom of Africa

A major item from the fon Njouteu treasure in the Bansoa chiefdom is the Njouteu throne , which depicts a king and his consort standing at the back of a circular seat supported by a leopard. The wooden sculpture was wrapped in a thin layer of locally woven raffia fabric, and a master beader then applied thousands of glass beads to this surface, using it as a three-dimensional canvas. The characters even wear full-fledged Venetian chevron bead necklaces. There are up to eight different kinds of beads used in this work – including the ubiquitous cowrie shell – indicating that this would truly have represented, as much as anything else, a king's treasure.

African Cowrie and Shell Necklace - Kingdom of Africa


Nowhere in Africa have glass beads been integrated so seamlessly into indigenous artistic traditions as in southern Africa , where beads were imported centuries before the arrival of Europeans. Glass beads were first traded across the Indian Ocean to the coast of East Africa , then inland to important citadels like Great Zimbabwe, between the seventh and tenth centuries AD.

Recent scientific analysis has revealed that these pearls were manufactured in Sri Lanka, South India and the Persian Gulf, and were transported across the Indian Ocean by Arab traders and Swahili . European glass beads were only introduced to the region in the 16th century by Portuguese and Dutch traders, and are believed to have been exchanged for the region's most valuable commodities: gold dust, copper, tobacco, ivory, rhino horn and tortoise shell.

Barter Beads – Triangular Trade

Before the mid-19th century, glass beads remained extremely rare in southern Africa. Sophisticated clothing and ornamental art was already in place, based primarily on the use of organic materials such as furs, skins, feathers, grass, seeds and shells. Wealthy individuals also incorporated metals such as copper, brass and iron.


However, by the last quarter of the 19th century, glass beads had either replaced or been used alongside these valuable native materials. Glass beads provided the ideal raw material for artistic traditions that were already devoted to clothing and ornamentation, with particularly elaborate traditions in women's clothing.

Lighabi girl's apron

The Ndebele people of modern-day South Africa and Zimbabwe use beadwork as a way of marking different cultural stages in a woman's life. Objects like the girl's apron (lighabi), the example of which above dates from the mid-20th century, were designed to be worn by young children, most often girls. This particular skirt is formed from a strip of stiff, folded canvas that would be tied around the waist, with a top band of beads embroidered directly onto this surface.

A lace-like beaded " fabric " hangs from this top band. It is made of individual strips of pearls. This fabric was to fall in front of the thick row of cotton cords strung with white seed beads that make up the skirt itself, increasing the dimension of the garment and encouraging the play of light when viewed in movement - an expression of the exuberance of youth.

Married woman's apron (ijogolo)

A very different aesthetic is suggested by the married woman's apron ( ijogolo ) shown above, also made by a Ndebele beadmaster, probably in the late 19th or early 20th century. A more refined, perhaps even dignified, color palette is suggested by the white pearl background, at the center of which is an "H" shape in bright pink and green. Constructed from a large piece of goatskin historically prepared by the wearer's husband (canvas was later used, then plastic), the upper part of the leather is rolled and packed with dry grass . This would have been collected at a certain time of year and would have been associated with fertility, before the introduction of glass beads

The extra flaps at the bottom would have covered the knees. The central panel is a little longer - described as umama - and represents the " mother of children ", who are in turn symbolized by the side flaps. In addition to this apron, a married woman would have worn a cape decorated with a wide beaded border over her shoulders, covering her breasts.

The cape of women (Ndebele peoples)

The "H" pattern seen on the apron symbolizes the plan of the Ndebele farm. This reminds us that when we see such works, we must consider the context in which they were brought - in this case, as part of a total Ndebele artwork which had at its center the farm, decorated with 'a bold geometric mural.

For the Ndebele, beadwork and the expression of cultural identity through bold geometric design made a powerful political statement during periods of colonialism and apartheid . Indeed, during the 20th century, beadwork in South Africa became increasingly associated with the expression of pre-colonial " traditional " African identity , and the wearing of beadwork was a political statement intended to evoke " a independent African past .

Ingqosha necklace

When Nelson Mandela wore the costume of a Thembu king – including leopard skin and a beaded necklace, similar to the collar (ingqosha) shown above – during his trial in 1962, he stunned the courtroom. Wearing this costume was considered an affront to European costume and was part of Mandela's desire to delegitimize the authority of a European court in Africa!

Because beads, especially seed beads, are identical in shape, similar beading techniques have been used across cultures and continents. The Sioux woman's dress (bottom left), for example, is made using techniques similar to those used to make the skirt (isikhakha or umbhaco) by the Xhosa peoples of South Africa (below right).

Sioux dress and South African umbhaco skirt

The two-bead border technique, whereby two beads are used to make a decorative edge, is employed both by the Ndebele artist to finish the cords of the girl's skirt described above, and in a another example by an Iroquois artist, to finish the edge of a pocket (lower right) sometime earlier in the 19th century.

In another example, the designs seen on the cape of a Stoney girl from Canada in the 19th century (lower left) are reminiscent of the type of designs found in southern African beadwork, which suggests that certain types of geometry may be inscribed in the shape of the bead itself.

South African clothing: Women's pearl cape

Today, the art of beads in our African traditions is still present. As we have just seen, it is a profound part of our history and therefore deserves to be further developed and valued. We therefore invite you to discover our collection of African necklaces, made of all kinds of glass beads and shells, by African artisans.

African necklace collection - Kingdom of Africa

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