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