Meaning, memories are stitched into South African beadworks

Twenty years ago on a sugar plantation in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, Bev Gibson and Ntombephi “Induna” Ntobela founded a collective called Ubuhle (pronounced uh-boo-klay), which means “beauty” in the languages of the local Zulu and Xhosa peoples. The women of Ubuhle live and work together, raising their children and crafting large, often searingly personal beaded textiles called ndwangos — in English, “cloths,” or “rags.”

The Zulu and Xhosa peoples have been making beadwork, archeologists tell us, for 72,000 years. “Ubuhle Women: Beadwork and the Art of Independence” at the Currier Museum of Art spotlights a group whose cunning use of the age-old art has fostered their financial autonomy.

The work is intricate; a single ndwango can take 10 months or more to make, as the artist painstakingly stitches tiny Czech glass beads into black cloth. The smallest pieces are just over a foot square; the largest, a jaw-dropping, multi-panel altarpiece, is close to 15-by-23 feet.

In this sparkling exhibition organized by the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum, light plays in great waves over the ndwangos as you walk by them. Translucent colors and organic, purling patterns of stitches add layers of movement and meaning.

Working with Ubuhle provides the artists spiritual and emotional sustenance as well as a livelihood. The group has seen children grow and sisters die. Five artists have been lost to HIV/AIDS or other illnesses since 2006. Stitch by stitch, bead by bead, the artists express grief, love, and loss.

Among the dead: Ntobela’s sister Bongiswa Ntobela, the most visionary artist in this show. The speckled grounds in her pieces seem to tremble as distinct forms pop against them. In “Beshu,” concentric circles, arrows, and pinwheels hover and spin, orbiting around the central image of an abstracted, multicolored skirt. The viewer’s eye shuttles between form and background, solid and ethereal, now and forever.

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