An eclectic blog about beads, beading and beyond

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Talking with beadwork (Ubuhlalu): messages of hope, love, and solidarity

I’m delighted to have just been given two beaded dolls from South Africa. They are Zulu AIDS ‘Orphan Dolls’ about 4 inches tall with wonderful disk head dress (see photo). These dolls are most often handmade by Zulu beaders who are grandmothers and who are taking care of children orphaned by the AIDS pandemic. The women make the dolls as a source of income to help them care for a generation of children orphaned by AIDS. Often these children will not be related to the grandmothers.

The dolls also carry a message to the world. They are sent to remind us that there are millions of children orphaned by the AIDS pandemic and to express a hope for the future free from the AIDS pandemic and its effects on everyone. A powerful message sent through beadwork.

The use of beads to send messages has a long history in many cultures. In traditional Zulu culture bead colour and the beadwork patterns carry meaning. Zulu beadwork (Ubuhlalu) is designed and created solely by women, but both men and women wear it in the form of bracelets, headbands, necklaces and clothing adornment.
Traditionally, each colour and pattern in a piece of beadwork expressed a different meaning so that a Zulu woman could weave a “message” into her beadwork gifts to man using a combination of colour and pattern. Generally, her beadwork messages were about courtship, marriage, sexual intentions, hopes and relationships. For this reason, beadwork was not made for or given to blood relatives.

In contemporary times, beadwork in South Africa has also carried messages of protest and political solidarity. For instance when Nelson Mandela appeared for his trial he appeared in Tembu dress with a wide beadwork collar. The photo of his appearance was not published until the 1990s when ANC was unbanned.

Among the Zulu beadwork is women’s business. Zulu women learnt their beading techniques and symbolism from their mothers and/or older sisters and Zulu men and boys had to rely on the women in their family to translate the meanings of beadwork gifts that they received. Now, beadwork enables many women to become wage earners and their beadwork (for example, AIDS orphan dolls) is critical to the finances of their families and communities.

Whilst not all contemporary Zulu beading carries messages of love, sex and courtship the tradition of Zulu women using their beadwork to talk about issues important in their lives is clearly apparent in my AIDS orphan dolls. It is also apparent in two other pieces of contemporary Zulu beading I own - two beaded AIDS awareness red ribbons. These ribbons carry the message of solidarity of people living with HIV/AIDS.

What messages are in the beadwork you own?

If you'd like to bead your own HIV/AIDS awareness ribbon I have designed a free pattern as a Friday Followers and Facebook Fans offer in peyote and square stitch - just email me or let me know in a comment and I can email it to you.

• The History of Zulu Beadwork |
• Carey, M. 2001, Gender in African Beadwork, in Sciama, L. and Eicher, J. (Eds), Beads and Bead Makers: Gender, Material Culture and Meaing, BERG, Oxford. (pp. 83 – 91),


Emerald Window said...

Zulu beadwork is very ptent. My sister lives in South Africa and visits every few years, bringing wonderful gifts fom the native people. One year she brought a pair of beaded Zulu fertility dolls for my brother and his new wife. They immediately got pregnant and then lent the dolls to a cousin who also got pregnant immediately. Whoever had the dolls had a baby soon afterwards. It was funny at first, but when we didn't want anymore babies, we worried about where to put the dolls. They are now in a dresser in my parents house in a spare bedroom, but no one of childbearing age will sleep in that room.

Marsha Wiest-Hines said...

Wow Glenda, than you for sharing that, and for the pattern as well.

KRDesigns11 said...

Very interesting; thanks for sharing something else you were meant to have. I'd also like the ribbon pattern.

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