Beading African History

Possibly Bamileke artist, West or Northwest Province, Cameroon. Elephant mask (mbap mteng), early 20th century. Glass beads, cloth, raffia, fiber, 87.6 x 22.9 x 38.1 cm. Museum purchase, Fowler McCormick, Class of 1921, FundThe beautiful beaded works of art currently on view in the African gallery were integral to social and spiritual life in a range of sub-Saharan African cultures, and they document important histories of global trade. African gold, ivory, and, eventually, slaves were traded for European glass beads within an asymmetrical system of power and wealth. As symbols of status, beads were worn for centuries on the bodies of kings, chiefs, priests, and their families, elevating the ordinary while conveying access and prestige. In the kingdoms of western Cameroon, beaded elephant masks were part of elaborate costumes worn by powerful groups whose rituals were often secret. The image of the elephant expressed the authority of the king while the beadwork reinforced this royal association, since beads were reserved for those of noble lineage. In this stunning recent acquisition, white seed beads arranged into repeating triangles create a dazzling positive-negative effect.