Beaded Realities: Ubuhle and the South African Character

My 5-month study abroad in South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal province awakened in me an undeniable connection to the African diaspora.  It explains my instant and deep connection to the “Ubuhle Women: Beadwork and the Art of Independence” exhibit currently featured at the Anacostia Community Museum through January 4, 2015. This powerfully moving collection displays 31 works from a unique South African art form:  a beaded tradition that has a sacred significance in the Xhosa and Zulu cultures. The exhibit not only evokes an emotional response, but it provokes thought as well.  Each bead and the meticulous placement and stitching thereof create vivid imagery of stories, events, individuals, and locations that are specific to the artist, yet remain translatable to the general viewing audience.

Each of the women of the Ubuhle art collective serves as a cultural gatekeeper for her respective community. Through the beaded artwork, these female artists express both the vibrant richness of their nation without turning a blind eye to the various misfortunes and social ills that plague it. This is perhaps most evident in the “focal point” of the exhibition, which is austerely entitled “The African Crucifixion”. Originally commissioned by the Anglican Cathedral in Pietermaritzburg, this work, towering at nearly 8 feet, dramatically displays the highs and lows of the South African condition in the 21st century. The panels comprising the piece depict trees, houses and other imagery that symbolize topics ranging from personal storms and triumphs to the HIV/AIDs epidemic and also celebrate the blessing of basic necessities like food, water and security.

The African Crucifixion, 2009 – Credit: Photograph by Susana A. Raab, Anacostia Community Museum

Of all the pieces featured in the exhibit,  the ones that feature scenes from rural life hearkens back to my own journeys as a student in South Africa. The bold colors and intricate details of nature take me back to the many days of traveling to the townships and outlying cities of Durban, KwaZulu-Natal, where traffic “robots” and motor vehicles were replaced by the constant presence of Ankole Longhorn cattle and Venda chickens on the shoulder of dirt roads.  My interaction with the residents from these areas reflects in a similar way the character and zeal that many of the women in the Ubuhle group also possess – resilience.

Ankoli Bull, 2013 – Credit: Photograph by Susana A. Raab, Anacostia Community Museum

“Ubuhle Women: Beadwork and the Art of Independence” is a physical example of the strength and vibrancy of the South African character brought into an American context. The beauty of it all is that the Ubuhle Women arts collective offers its members the ability to transform a traditional art form into a contemporary means of self-expression and economic empowerment.

Through this alluring exhibition, the Anacostia Community Museum has provided American audiences, a cross-cultural peek at a South African group’s approach to the universal yearning for self-actualization.

Ubuhle Co-founder Bev Smith and ACM intern Kristen Shannon, Photograph by Natalie Thielen Helper, Bedazzled

By:  Kristen Shannon, ACM Public Affairs Intern; senior, American University


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