Place: South Africa
Media: Trade beads and fiber
Dims: 45 x 1.5 in. (114.3 x 3.8 cm).
Date: c. 1890
The Message on the Zulu Beaded Necklace: The culture, language, and rich tradition of the Zulu people remains strong in the KwaZulu-Natal province of South Africa. Not much is known of this mysterious necklace from the past—who made it, when it was worn, or its message. However, we do know it was made of trade beads and fiber as a neck ornament.
Rich in cultural patrimony, beadwork continues to form part of the foundation of what it means to be Zulu today. With its unique eye-catching geometrical designs and variety of colors, Zulu beadwork is more than a jewelry piece worn by men and women. When worn, it creates a lively channel for communicating many animated messages…the status, marriage status, and place of origin, to name a few. Striking symbols and brilliant colors are part of a playful, and sometimes solemn, entanglement of meanings that convey to the eye of the beholder its hidden message. At times the wearer can decipher the meanings, but at times it is so personal, that only the maker knows.
Long ago, only Zulu kings and their families, as part of a royal clan, could wear these precious beaded items, And this may have been the case for this beaded ornament. It may have been collected during the second Boer War during the late 1800s to late 1900s. Before the introduction of glass beads at the end of the eighteenth century, Zulu beads were made of ivory, bone, wood, shell, animal teeth, seeds, clay, plants, and eggshells (Griffin, 1995). Over the years, beads became ever more common as they were increasingly imported, and became more accessible and yearned-for items. In time, the practice and design of making and wearing beads assimilated into key ornaments of Zulu garments and South African fashion.
To learn how to bead is a trait of skill and prized by many Zulu women. Learning from one’s mother, grandmother, or aunt is a highly cherished pastime for young women as they grow into the young role models of their community. Beadwork is made by hand and requires a special touch, patience, and nimble grace to be able to pass the dainty beaded segments into their designated rightful place—a skill for a true tradeswoman. The colors are entrusted to the design in the maker, responding to the calling of the beads. With patience and delight, the vivid beads slide in one by one, or at times, in threes or fours. Like a puzzle waiting to be made, the artist’s intention begins to appear, with its colorful splendor. Symbols of desires, admiration, and best intentions begin to unfold. If you are lucky enough, you may even be able to decipher the message.
Beaded work was used as a way of courtship. If a woman returned the admiration and interest in the man, it would be to reciprocate with two beaded necklaces or ibheqe; one as a gift for him and one for herself. Together they would wear her designs as a symbol of their courtship. This necklace, for example, may have been a positive symbolic representation of such a courtship. According to Zulu tradition, black represents marriage, while white signifies love. In a traditional Zulu wedding, clearly, it is the radiant bride in all her beaded glory who beckons the groom into her vibrant world.
—ALISON GUZMAN, November 2021
“Belt (Umutsha).” Metmuseum.org, 2021, https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/314791.
Betty. “Zulu Traditional Wedding Culture: Ceremony, Colours, Songs.” Briefly, 28 May 2020, https://briefly.co.za/25040-zulu-traditional-wedding-culture-ceremony-colours-songs.html.
“Color Meanings.” Zulu Beadwork, https://zulubeadwork.weebly.com/color-meanings.html.
Gem, The Beading. “African Beadwork : The Romance of Zulu Beads.” The Beading Gem’s Journal, Blogger, 8 Jan. 2016, https://www.beadinggem.com/2007/01/romance-of-zulu-beads.html.
Griffin, Sharon. “Zulu Beadwork ‘Speaks’ across Time .” Icwa.org, 2015, https://www.icwa.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/SFG-7.pdf.
Pretorius, Professor Fransjohan. “History – the Boer Wars.” BBC, BBC, 29 Mar. 2011, https://www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/victorians/boer_wars_01.shtml.
RTC No: AF0046
Gift of Ralph T. Coe, 2011
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