Student Interpretation → Susan Kelliher

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Zulu Beaded Panels

Zulu beaded messages have been in use for at least the last hundred and fifty years. Our collection of beaded necklaces shown here were collected by Frank Jolles and can be used to trace cultural change and the transformation of Zulu culture from a predominantly non-literate to literate society through the course of the 20th century. These beaded panels demonstrate the various forms of Zulu beadwork that convey messages, often from young women to their boyfriends and fiancès. Many of them have been called "Zulu love letters" because they are meant to convey interpersonal messages during the course of courtship and marriage negotiations. But Zulu beadwork also encodes regional, social, religious and political identities.

The most common form of Zulu beadwork in our collection is the isibebe, a rectangular beaded panel on a beaded necklace meant to be worn around the neck. The knots at either end are said to represent clasping hands. The earliest forms encode meanings in patterned sequences of colored beads. This is a highly metaphoric language coded in symbolic references to the natural world and idiomatic expressions in the Zulu language. Geometric figures were an addition to the meaning of these messages. With increasing cultural contact from without, pseudo-letters were added to the range of motifs. And the onset of education and literacy in the 20th century saw the rise of actual written messages on the beadwork, and the development of the ithemba (amathemba , pl.) or "blackboard" beaded panels.

Beaded Panel

Beaded Panel (isebebe)

Zandile Ma Ndlovu Dube
South African
Beaded Panel (isibebe)
Glass beads,metal,plastic
Museum Purchase with Harn General Program Endowment Funds

This beaded panel necklace is the third one made during Zandile Ma Ndlovu Dube’s engagement. It bears the text “abantu izoni” and translates as “people are wicked” and is a reaction to those spreading malicious gossip about the couple. The five strand plaited neckband, isibohph reiterates the old color code, using white (mhlophe) to signify purity of heart, and red, referring to blood and love (bomvu). By wearing this necklace, the man is essentially saying that he is ignoring those who would dissuade him and restating his commitment to marrying the woman.

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