Shimmering bead “paintings” by South African women on view at the Four Arts

The women who created the artwork in Ubuhle Women: Beadwork and the Art of Independence “paint” with beads. Each “canvas” is composed of a myriad of tiny glass beads sewn into black cloth stretched onto a canvas backing. They shimmer in the light.

The “paintings” are a new art form developed by the members of the Ubuhle collective. The group was established in 1999 by master beader Ntombephi Ntobela and Bev Gibson in the KwaZulu-Natal province in South Africa to help indigenous rural women achieve financial independence by elevating traditional beadwork into saleable fine art.

Their artistry is on view in 31 works at The Society of the Four Arts.

Ubuhle means “beauty” in the Xhosa and Zulu languages spoken by the collective’s members. By choosing that name “they’re drawing attention to the fact that the artwork they create is very beautiful and really meant to be consumed by the eyes,” said Rebecca Dunham, the Four Arts’ head of fine arts and curator.  

Xhosa and Zulu women have been fashioning beadwork for personal adornment for centuries.  

But it became something else when Gibson and Ntombephi Ntobela  saw it as a remedy to the hardships caused when the sugar cane industry turned families into migrants and separated male cane cutters from their loved ones for months at a time. When traditional social structures broke down, women were left to fend for themselves and their families. Ntombephi Ntobela taught women to use beading to make art. Gibson and her family provided a place for them to live, work and sell their art.  

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