African Beaded Art: Power and Adornment
By John Pemberton III
For centuries, adornment with beads has been an important means of personal and social identity in African cultures. Archaeological excavations on the African continent have revealed the use of a variety of materials for beads dating as early as the Neolithic period. But from the 16th through the 20th centuries, when sub-Saharan Africa was caught up in the struggle of world economic and political powers, glass beads arrived from Europe and India and became incorporated as a new medium in African art. The story of this imported material is one inextricably linked with colonialism and with the arrival of traders, missionaries, explorers, and military personnel. As new markets and trade opened, and Europeans competed with Indian beadmakers for control of the lucrative African market, imported beads were carried to coastal ports and then by African traders across the continent. With the influx of glass beads in great quantities, African artists created works of startling beauty, color, and complexity.
This exhibition and its catalog examine how the peoples of sub-Saharan Africa responded to imported beads, both in aesthetic terms and in the ways beads reflected their changing social and political situation in the 19th and first half of the 20th century.
- 209 pages; softcover.
- Published in 2008 by Smith College Museum of Art.