African art is defined largely by the use of colourful beads in their jewellery, clothing, sculptures and paintings. Indeed, this important element has existed within the realm of African art for centuries.
As with all African art, their beadwork differed in significance, application and quality from one region to the next. The societies further inland valued items like shells, ivory and coral more than all others as these were particularly difficult and / or costly to come by. In ancient times, fish vertebrae, stones, quartz, pieces of wood and bark, as well as the seeds of some plants were used as beads. When the Europeans arrived, they brought with them glass beads. This was a product that had never before been witnessed by native Africans and was deemed to be extremely valuable. They became a coveted form of currency, and were traded for valuable items and even slaves.
Beadwork is primarily used to decorate the human body in the form of jewellery and hair accessories. This applies for both men and women. The Yoruba tribes of Nigeria would don the chief in a beaded crown and veil, while the Dinkas of Kenya would clothe their soldiers in a breastplate of colourful beads. Beads are also used to indicate victories, marital status and number of children. In Ghana, Mali, Songhai and Nigeria, the kings sometimes wore such heavy beading that they needed physical support from their attendants so that they did not lose their balance when walking or standing up.
The colours and designs often bear their own significance. Certain designs are for newly married couples, while others are for the birth of a first child or to indicate social rank, for example.
Beadwork has become an educational tool for many cultures, as older women use it to teach the girls about social etiquette and marital expectations.
Today, visitors to Africa are sure to see bead-workers selling their wares on the sides of the roads or from stalls and shops. They have successfully established businesses to support themselves and their extended families using this valuable craft.
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