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Ezakwantu - Beadwork from the Eastern Cape
 

South African National Gallery

 

Igalari YoBuzwe yoMzantsi Afrika

 

Suid-Afrikaanse Nasionale Kunsmuseum

 

 

 

Ezakwantu - Beadwork from the Eastern Cape
 

South African National Gallery

 

Igalari YoBuzwe yoMzantsi Afrika

 

Suid-Afrikaanse Nasionale Kunsmuseum

 

 

Ezakwantu - Beadwork from the Eastern Cape - Pages 66 & 56

 

Ezakwantu - Beadwork from the Eastern Cape, is an exhibition catalogue. The exhibition took place at the South African National Gallery between October 1993 and May 1994. The exhibition catalogue seems to represent an ideological attempt to bring the politics of the day and Eastern Cape beadwork onto the center stage at National Gallery level.

 

 

Ezakwantu - Beadwork from the Eastern Cape - Page 5

 

At the time, Marilyn Martin was the Director of the South African National Gallery, an entity which was considered by many as Eurocentric. Her intentions to transform the focus and direction of the collections and exhibitions had merit. Public art galleries across the country were falling over themselves in frantic attempts to 'please' or 'appease' the changing 'New South Africa' as they interpreted it. 'Art' from the majority population was under represented in the institutions, if represented at all. 

 

 

Ezakwantu - Beadwork from the Eastern Cape - Page 55

 

Imagine the disappointment when the National Gallery was unable to persuade Nelson Mandela to open the event. We were told that in search of an alternative star attraction, Walter Sisulu was scheduled - but then cancelled. We understand that his wife Albertina Sisulu agreed to attend, but for a reason unknown to us, did not. To the surprise of the curatorial team, little or no interest was shown from what was to become the new government. Similar frustrations were duplicated throughout the country at related venues.

 

 

Ezakwantu - Beadwork from the Eastern Cape - Pages 43 & 27

 

The catalogue includes the following essays:

 

Exploring Meanings and Identities: beadwork from the Eastern Cape in the South African National Gallery by Emma Bedford,

 

Ezakwantu eGalari yeSizwe by Sipho Ndabambi

 

Beadwork: the heart of tradition and culture by Thami Ngwevela

 

The Magic of Beadwork by Abner Nyamende

 

Tracing Cultural Roots by Christina Jikelo

 

Adornment as Art: an ethnographic perspective by Patricia Davison

 

Women's Work: or engendering the art of beadwork in Southern Africa by Sandra Klopper

 

Towards a History of Glass Beads by Sharma Saitowitz

 

The Bead Rush: development of the nineteenth-century bead trade from Cape Town to King William's Town by Carol Kaufmann

 

Through the Barrel of a Bead: the personal and the political in the beadwork of the Eastern Cape by Andre Proctor and Sandra Klopper

 

Drawing the Bead on Blacks: Eastern Cape people painted by Baines, shot by Pocock by Gary van Wyk

 

The Social Life of Beads: expressive uses of beadwork in the Eastern Cape by Lindsay Hooper.

 

Ezakwantu - Beadwork from the Eastern Cape - Page 69

 

A number of contributors were cited in the South African Archaeological Bulletin 49: 104-106, 1994. Though soundly critiqued, missing in the cataloged review was a refute to Gary van Wyk's misleading assertion that Thomas Baines had distorted and manipulated both the size and bead colour of bonnets illustrated on page 69 - Plates 10 and 11. Van Wyk need only to have visited the East London Museum to discover two exceedingly large examples in a group of six, or the British Museum where he would have come in contact with a beaded red and white example.

 

 

Ezakwantu - Beadwork from the Eastern Cape - Page 22

 

In our view, placing a large sign next to a nationally owned artwork by Thomas Baines, that contained the text of Van Wyk's unnecessary sexist 'nipple' rant, was zealous reverse racist rhetoric - sponsored with State funds. 

 

I.e.  it is certainly clear that Baines pays particular attention to the nipples of the woman carrying corn. Notice how the far nipple is like a bulls-eye in the centre of the target-like format of the painting; how prominent the nipple is in the profile of the woman; how this nipple forms the terminal point of a strong diagonal that runs up from the woman's left foot; how it points at the echoes of the mountain on the left that presages for Victorian readers Sir Rider Haggard's invention of a pair of mountains called Queen Sheba's Breasts.
 

Van Wyk falsely declares: The incebetha (breast covering) worn by western Xhosa-speakers from the nineteenth century was of soft skin or fabric, decorated with beads if the wearer could afford it. Nipples could not in fact protrude through the solid covering.   

 

The only purpose his allegations served were to defame the good name of a (defenceless) artist. Members of the public found the insertion disgusting and to this day, are repulsed by the ideological decision for its inclusion, in what would otherwise have been a fantastic exhibition display.

 

Ezakwantu - Beadwork from the Eastern Cape - Pages 109 & 105

 

 

Catalogue REVIEW

 

 

The following review by M. Wood was published in the South African Archaeological Bulletin 49: 104-106, 1994.

BEDFORD, E. (ed.) Ezakwantu: Beadwork from the Eastern Cape. 1993. Cape Town: South African National Gallery. 112 pp. 13 colour plates. 61 b&w photographs. ISBN 1-874817-10-3.

 

Ezakwantu: Beadwork from the Eastern Cape is the title of the catalogue produced by the South African National Gallery (SANG) to accompany and explain their exhibition (31 October 1993 to 29 May 1994) of the same name. A fair amount of explaining takes place in its pages since the gallery is obviously trying to redefine its direction and role in the emerging New South Africa and doesn’t seem to know yet what direction it should take. This attempt to refocus the gallery toward a broader section of society is an honest and surely necessary endeavour but a thorny task indeed. The fact that museums are a European invention and therefore Eurocentric in organization cannot be changed. but their content and appeal to those from other cultures can and should be reexamined. A successful resolution of this dilemma will not be rapidly or painlessly achieved.

Although in her foreword gallery director Marilyn Martin tells us that the curators and contributors to the catalogue “have approached the subject of re-contextualization of beadwork as objects of art”, I feel that, considering the venue, this subject could have been more fully explored. Except for a brief discussion of this topic by Emma Bedford in her contribution “Exploring meanings and identities: beadwork from the eastern Cape in the South African National Gallery”, only Patricia Davison, in her article “Adornment as art: an ethnographic perspective”, actually talks about beadwork in terms of art. Not one contributor discusses actual objects on display from an aesthetic viewpoint. Davison draws our attention to the recent blurring of boundaries, both between disciplines within the humanities and in the distinction between art and artefact and notes that such boundaries are fluid and open to change. However, she perceptively points out that “The pertinent question...is not whether beadwork is ‘Art’ with a capital ‘A’; (the concept of ‘high art’ being limited historically and culturally to post-Renaissance and its areas of influence) but why it has become politic in the 1990s for the SANG to define and present southern African beadwork as art.” In attempting to answer this question she points out that the SANG needs to be accountable to the community it serves and that “In a multicultural society...a national gallery could be expected to represent the works of art of all sectors of society.” But by following this shift in policy and acquiring and exhibiting African beadwork “the SANG is making more than an aesthetic statement, it is conveying a current ideological position.” She then points out several of the pitfalls of treating beaded apparel as art and comes to the conclusion that “simply including African art in the collections of the SANG does not make the gallery less Eurocentric.”

Other authors in the catalogue approach the beadwork from various angles. Lindsay Hooper’s article “The social life of beads: expressive uses of beadwork in the eastern Cape” is an informative examination of the social significance of beadwork among the southern Nguni. She explains how beadwork is used to distinguish between gender and age groups, to protect individuals in vulnerable

[p. 105]

situations such as nursing mothers, to denote ethnic affiliation, to display wealth or political status, and ritually by diviners. Finally, she points out that ‘While some people have chosen to wear ‘traditional’ beadwork to express particular identity, others firmly rejected it as a symbol of ‘tribalism’ despised as non-progressive or because of its manipulation by politicians. Both the acceptance or rejection seem to emphasize the importance of beadwork in communicating information about the wearer.”

Acceptance or rejection of wearing beadwork, particularly with political motivation in mind, is well covered in “Through the barrel of a bead: the personal and the political in the beadwork of the Eastern Cape” by André Proctor and Sandra Klopper. They also discuss the social significance of beads and beadwork as well as changes in their meanings and uses from the mid-l9th to the late 20th centuries. The historical background of the bead trade in the Eastern Cape is covered by Carol Kaufmann in ‘The bead rush: development of the nineteenth-century bead trade from Cape Town to King Williams Town’. Delving back even further, Sharma Saitowitz contributes an informative brief history of glass bead manufacture and trade from their origins through to the present day in “Towards a history of glass beads”.

Although one of the stated aims of the exhibition was to encourage interest and participation in the museum from a broader, more culturally diverse audience, the catalogue has not been conceived with this in mind. Although informative and well written, articles such as Sandra Klopper’s ‘Women’s work, or engendering the art of beadwork in southern Africa” are not easily accessible to individuals who have not been steeped in the academic dialogue surrounding this material. In fact one wonders why the organizers did not see fit to ask Stephen Long (who was profusely thanked by almost everyone involved in the exhibition and the catalogue) to write an article about the very objects that were on display. He might also have been asked to conduct in-depth interviews with some of the women who actually make and use the beadwork. Such interviews would surely have been more informative than the pleasant but rather insubstantial letters from various Xhosa speakers (most of whom admitted they know little about beadwork).

 

 

Ezakwantu - Beadwork from the Eastern Cape - Page 8


Perhaps these ideas about the content of the catalogue are personal biases but the main problems lie in occasional lack of adequate research. The first difficulty arises in Emma Bedford’s article “Exploring meanings and identities: beadwork from the eastern Cape in the South African National Gallery”. She postulates that Victorian fashions influenced the dress of southern Nguni women. This certainly seems to be the case when one considers the changes in headgear and general dress form that took place, but it is a bit tenuous in her comparison of a blanket pin and a piece of Victorian beadwork. On close examination, the only thing the two pieces have in common is the fringe and that is the simplest and most universal use of beads after merely threading them on a string. If European influence had been important one would expect to find loom work and crochet work (beading techniques used by the Victorians) in southern Nguni beadwork, but neither ever occurs in any southern African beadwork.

Bedford also states that “Regional proximity between cultural groups seems to have over-ridden ethnic differences in the production of remarkably similar beadwork amongst Sotho-speakers from Lesotho and Xhosa-speakers from the Herschel district (Plate 2).” Although there are indeed many examples of cross cultural influence across ethnic lines, she has chosen dubious examples to demonstrate the point. The three blanket pins pictured in Plate 2 have been labelled ‘Mfengu’, ‘probably South Sotho’ and ‘mixed southern and northern Nguni and Sotho’. In fact, all three pieces are likely South Sotho based on their form, designs, beading techniques, colours and materials used. Cat. 280 is a bit unusual in its use of molded blue beads and Cat. 281 in the use of what appear to be glass bead imitations of ‘lucky’ beads or beans (red seeds used extensively and almost exclusively by the South Sotho). The designations given these two pieces are also speculative. Cat. 281 is from the D.R. Macfarlane bequest to the South African Museum. Although the index card on file at the museum does mention Mfengu, that designation has been added to the card in pencil in the margin by an unknown contributor (personal communication with Lindsay Hooper). The master register does not mention Mfengu but only states that the pieces were collected on the coast east of East London. Cat. 280 is from the Clem Webb collection at the Africana Museum and even though Kaufmann wishfully assumes that it is well documented (p. 51), there is in fact almost no information to accompany the collection. It came into the museum in two lots, the first was labelled native and the second ‘Zulu’ (personal communication with Ann Wanless). Bedford’s reference above to the “...Xhosa speakers from the Herschel district...” is puzzling. None of the pieces in Plate 2 is attributed to the Herschel district and in any case the area was populated mainly by Hlubi with Sotho and Thembu in lesser numbers (Van Warmelo 1935:62, 66, 99).

The other difficulties appear in Gary Van Wyk’s contribution. ‘Drawing the bead on blacks: eastern Cape people painted by Baines, shot by Pocock”. In complaining that early artists brought their biases into their works, Van Wyk is perhaps forgetting that he is doing the same by applying today’s sensibilities and morals to yesterday’s culture. He must realize that although today most of us would find Baines’ explanation of what he would do if he encountered an elephant (“shoot him, if I can, and, if not, sketch him”) distasteful at least. Baines’ response was at the time perfectly normal and acceptable. Similarly, although Baines and other painters of the period tended to idealize landscapes (being able to sell their work was surely important to them), it seems a bit extreme to accuse him of performing “...a kind of violence by manipulating the landscape...”

Although aggressively phrased, it is probably fair for Van Wyk to say that “In the paintings on exhibition (Plates 10 & 11), Baines presents us with mythical views of ‘Amakosa’ subjects in cultural isolation: ‘noble savages’ before ‘contamination’ by the West, in apparent harmony with nature.” It isn’t entirely honest to follow with “Rather than point to the bloody and deadly process of colonial conquest on the Cape’s frontiers in which he himself was involved…” since Baines had nothing to do with the selection of pictures for this exhibition and he did paint and sketch dozens of bloody battle scenes from the frontier wars.

Van Wyk correctly points out many potentially suspicious details in the beadwork depicted by Baines in the paintings on exhibit, but he should be perhaps more careful in drawing conclusions. Although he is probably correct in questioning a corn bearer wearing ceremonial anklets (which seem to have been worn by women only during a part of their wedding ceremony [Bigalke 1972]), his statement that these anklets were “conventionally black and white at the same time” is not entirely borne out by the evidence. Many were blue and white, but more significantly the Museum of Mankind in London has one (number Af,+.1495) which is made up of black, white and red beads. Also, Van Wyk’s claim that the large red beads (seen on the

[p. 106 ]

necklaces of the women in both plates) are not present in museum collections is not true. They are fairly common in museums in Europe and the United States and are not Idar-Oberstein stone but glass: sometimes transparent and at other times red glass wrapped on white or yellow cores. The assertion that the ornamental strip on the back of the cloak of the woman in Plate 11 “... is also over decorated by Baines with brass buttons, the height of embellishment among the wealthy being three rows of buttons” is not supported by available evidence. A.F. Gardiner, in his Narrative of a Journey to the Zoolu County (1836:101), shows the back of an ‘Amatembu’ woman whose cloak strip has four rows of brass buttons and that of the woman in F.T. L’Ons’ painting ‘Kosani or Kafir Jack 1846’ at the Africana Museum has five rows. In case these are also exaggerations by the artists, one can actually view a cape strip with six rows of buttons on display in the Saffron Walden Museum (Ln C 2372) in England.

 

 

Ezakwantu - Beadwork from the Eastern Cape - Page34


Similar problems arise in Van Wyk’s discussion of Pocock’s photographs. Again, his central premise that past representations must be employed with caution if they are to be taken seriously as historical fact” is disputable. Many early photographers posed, dressed and labelled their subjects with little or no concern for veracity or the dignity of their subjects. But restraint and thorough knowledge must be used when pointing out discrepancies. Van Wyk notes that the woman in fig. 36 is wearing an ivory arm band which “was reserved for the exclusive use of men of high status (Shaw and Van Warmelo 1988:658-660). He failed to note, however, that on p. 660 Shaw and Van Warmelo state “... that there were two sorts of ivory arm- band - the thick heavy ring worn only by chiefs and distinguished men of the Xhosa, Thembu and Bomvana, and a thinner ring that had no special significance and might be worn by any man or, according to three sources, women, who were able to afford it.” Furthermore, p. 17 of the Woodward Album at the Africana Museum contains a photo taken in about 1888 of a Xhosa woman wearing an ivory arm band. This obviously doesn’t prove that the photographers of these arm-band wearing women didn’t provide the bands as props, but one must be aware of the possibility that they did indeed belong to the subjects. Being over-zealous in scrutinizing early pictorial material doesn’t necessarily lead one closer to the truth. It also seems that the progress of a rational argument isn’t well served through the liberal use of loaded words such as ‘plunder’, ‘obsessive’ and ‘mania’.

Overall the catalogue has informative and interesting articles. Some of the material has been published before in various media but anyone interested in the history and politics of beadwork or the way in which the current political atmosphere is causing institutions such as the SANG to reexamine their policies, would enjoy reading this catalogue.

References
Bigalke, E.H. 1972. Dress, personal decoration and ornament among the Ndlambe. Annals of the Cape Provincial Museum 9:65-90.

Gardiner, A.F. 1836. Narrative of a journey to the Zoolu country in South Africa, undertaken in 1835. London: William Crofts.

Kennedy, R.F. (compiler) 1967. Johannesburg Africana Museum Catalogue of Pictures vol. 3.

Kennedy, R.F. (compiler) 1975. Africana Museum Catalogue of Prints vol. 1.

Shaw, EM. & Van Warmelo, N.J. 1988. The material culture of the Cape Nguni. Part 4: Personal and general.

Annals of the South African Museum 5 8:447-949.

Van Warmelo, N.J. 1935. A preliminary survey of the Bantu tribes of South Africa. Department of Native Affairs: Ethnological Publications vol. 5.
 

 

Ezakwantu - Beadwork from the Eastern Cape - Page 28 & 75

 

 

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