"Colorful, Contemporary South African Beadworks Express Story of Tragedy, Hope and Healing"

 Ubuhle Women: Beadwork and the Art of Independence.

Bongiswa Ntobela (South African, 1973?2009)
Funky Bull, 2006
Glass beads sewn onto fabric
The Ubuhle Private Collection

“Experience the color and shine of intricate beaded artworks in Ubuhle Women: Beadwork and the Art of Independence. On view at the Chrysler Museum of Art from Oct. 18, 2018–Feb. 24, 2019, the exhibition showcases a new form of textile art known as the ndwango and presents a story of rural South African women overcoming hardships and illness to achieve artistic significance and economic independence.

Beadwork is a customary form of artistic expression for South African women and is passed down through the generations. Ubuhle Women was established by Ntombephi Ntobela and Bev Gibson in 1999 on a former sugar plantation in KwaZulu-Natal. It created employment for rural women using the traditional skills many of them already possessed. The plain black fabric that serves as the foundation for the Ubuhle Women’s exquisite beadwork is reminiscent of the Xhosa headscarves and skirts many of the women wore growing up. The artists stretch this textile like a canvas and use colored Czech glass beads to transform the flat cloth into a contemporary art form of remarkable visual depth. Gibson, the visionary of the traveling exhibition, says “the works are so beautiful, there’s nothing to understand.” Ntobela says the women work in their own unique style “directly from the soul” to create abstract and figurative subjects for their ndwangos.

“There are fascinating, culturally specific elements in these artworks like patterning influenced by traditional Zulu and Xosa clothing and adornment as well as imagery and subject matter that speak to a universal humanity that we all share and can relate to. No matter who we are, we can identify with a person’s sorrow, joy, hopes and journeys of healing,” said Carolyn Swan Needell, Ph.D., the Chrysler Museum’s Carolyn and Richard Barry Curator of Glass.

Remembering the dead is a key motivation for the creation of many of these artworks, and it imbues them with a spiritual significance. Since 2006, the Ubuhle community has lost five artists to HIV/AIDS, diabetes, cancer and other illnesses, nearly halving the number of active artists. Many of the ndwangos function as memorials to Ubuhle sisters who have lost their lives. Due to the slow, meticulous process of creating the ndwango, the act of beading becomes a form of therapy. It is a way of setting down the issues that are closest to the artists’ hearts, a way of grieving and a place to encode feelings and memories. “The ndwango as a medium might be considered a ‘portrait’ of each artist as every work is a deeply personal recording that captures the artist’s experiences as well as her distinctive style of working and signature colors, patterns and imagery,” said Swan Needell.

Ubuhle means “beauty” in the Xhosa and Zulu languages and aptly describes the shimmering quality of light on glass, which has a particular spiritual significance for the Xhosa people. From a distance, each panel of an ndwango seems to present a continuous surface, but as the viewer moves closer and each tiny bead catches the light, the meticulous skill and labor that went into each work becomes stunningly apparent, as does the sheer scale of artistic ambition. A single panel can take more than 10 months to complete.

Four ndwangos with imagery of South African breeds of cattle such as Boran, Ankoli and Nguni are among the exhibition highlights. Each represents an actual animal studied by the artist. The bulls and cows remind the women of their fathers, mothers, grandmothers and sisters while the color palette and patterns reflect personal traits like strength, courage, energy, dignity and love. Another highlight from the exhibition is the monumental artwork The African Crucifixion. Although telling a biblical story, the crucifixion of Christ is seen through the eyes of a community of women who are dealing with the key issues of 21st-century life in rural South Africa — health, food, water, employment and security.

Also on view at the Chrysler are photographs of five active Ubuhle artists by renowned South African photographer Zanele Muholi. In these photographic portraits, Muholi captures the dignity and confidence of the Ubuhle Women. Empowered as artists, the women have gained a growing sense of themselves as women with a voice.”