Beading African History

As individual objects and as parts of complex works of art, the beads on view in this gallery document important histories of trade and culture. Worn for centuries on the bodies of kings, chiefs, priests, and their families, beads transformed and elevated the ordinary while conveying status, access, and prestige. By the sixteenth century, Africans traded gold, ivory, and, eventually, slaves for glass beads produced in Venice and Bohemia (present-day Czech Republic). As the slave trade violently removed millions of individuals from the continent, the beads and cowrie shells traded as currency became artifacts of an asymmetrical system of power and wealth. When the Berlin Conference of 1884–85 partitioned the African continent into European colonies, beads traded by colonial rulers flooded African markets, making them accessible to a broader range of social groups.

Within and out of this difficult history of beads, African artists created intricate, beautiful works of art integral to social and spiritual life. Using beads, they encrusted crowns and hats, gilded political and religious garments, fashioned vessels, and built sculptures. The artists drew on beads’ chromatic range and light-throwing translucency to embellish forms with abstract patterns and representational motifs. Whether strung together, wrapped around a sculpture, or sewn onto fabric, beads possess an inherent flexibility that has allowed artists to communicate messages about religion, politics, and identity.

Perrin Lathrop
Graduate Student, Department of Art & Archaeology

  • 115642
    Yoruba artist
    Cap (fìlà abéti ajá ìlẹ̀kẹ̀), late 19th century
  • 73907
    Yoruba artist
    Tunic, late 19th–early 20th century
  • 61090
    Yoruba artist
    Twin commemorative figures (ere ibeji) with tunic, late 19th–early 20th century
  • 36958
    Yoruba artist
    Conical crown (adenla), 20th century
  • 36992
    Yoruba artist
    Ifa Diviner's Necklace (Odigba Ifa), 20th century
  • 37061
    Yoruba artist
    Ifa Divination Bag (apo ileke), 20th century
  • 36969
    Yoruba artist
    House of the Head (Ile Ori), 20th century
  • 102729
    possibly Bamileke artist
    Elephant mask (mbap mteng), early 20th century
  • 37047
    Kuba artist
    Collar, 20th century
  • 37030
    Bushoong artist, Kuba people
    Prestige belt (nkody mu-ikup), 20th century
  • 60513
    Kuba artist
    Belt (yet), 20th century
  • 37122
    Yoruba artist
    Coronet (Orikogbofo), 20th century
  • 32967
    Pende or Yaka artist
    Prestige cap (misango mapende), 20th century, before 1975
  • 37096
    Kuba artist
    Prestige cap (laket kupash), 20th century
  • 61100
    Bamum artist
    Flywhisk (sa), early 20th century, before 1933