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.

Man's Back Tie

Man's back tie (ulimi, uthaye, isishunka)

Zulu People
South Africa
Man's Back Tie (ulimi, uthayi)
c. 1950
Glass beads

Young Zulu men and women wear long beaded panels, ulimi, meaning tongue, or uthayi (derived from tie) on the chest or back. The color sequence, called isishunka, which includes dark green, black, pink, light blue, red, white and pale yellow, is the oldest and most complex of the color sequences of the Msinga style. The two main colors, black and green are the most essential. Black is symbolic of soot used to blacken oxhide skirts (isidwaba) worn by married women, and thus conveys readiness to marry, whereas green denotes sickness and pining. Other colors are said to be enhancements only, although they too have associated meanings. This ulimi was worn by a man on the back, probably for a ceremony such as a wedding or a coming of age ceremony, but ulimi may also be worn in rituals honoring ancestors.

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