About the Exhibit

Objects presented in the exhibition are drawn from the Harn Museum‘s collection and private collections. They are organized in groups according to the most important ideas that they communicate, including “Desire for Children,” “Growing Up,” “Family Ties,” “Marital Status,” “Dialogue with Spirits,” and “Power and Prestige.” Within these groups are beaded objects used in daily life, such as doll-like figures and garments and adornments for everyday wear. Other works, including masks, costume, containers, implements, display objects and royal regalia, were used in sacred and secular ceremonies. These objects demonstrate ingenious strategies used to communicate ideas with beads. Some works express highly complex ideas through subtly configured colors and patterns, and others employ representational imagery.

Dynamic strategies of beadwork communication used in and across cultures are traceable. This is most clearly seen in Zulu beadwork used to convey messages to lovers as an important form of marriage negotiation. By the nineteenth century, this form of negotiation had developed into a highly sophisticated courtly art. The beaded panels, commonly known today as “love letters,” were originally composed of geometric abstract shapes in various configurations, but by the mid-twentieth century, this wholly visual system gave way to using written text. In many types of beadwork, it is the material used to produce beads that conveys meaning. This is seen in a Somali amber Porte Koran necklace in the exhibition that has beads made of amber and agate, both regarded as powerful medicines for healing and preventing maladies.

The beaded art objects in this exhibition can only begin to suggest the versatility of beadwork in communicating cultural and personal meaning, and can only hint at the length of the time span that beads have been one of the most prevalent African art forms used to further various modes of social and political discourse.

Interpretive text for the exhibition, available throughout the gallery, was supplied in part by the students in Dr. Victoria Rovine’s Spring 2007 Clothing and Textiles in Africa class. Their participation in the exhibition was supported by the Madelyn M. Lockhart Endowment for Focus Exhibitions. Additional support for the exhibition was provided by a generous anonymous donor.

This Web site was made possible by technical support and funding from School of Art and Art History and the Digital Library Center of the University of Florida, which features Between the Beads and more African beadwork on their Web site at http://ufdc.ufl.edu/africa.

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