New York Times, Art in Review
Friday, January 2, 2004
By Ken Johnson
The history of the Ndebele people of South Africa extends back to the 17th century, but their famous beadwork and painted houses are relatively recent traditions. Glass beads in particular were not available until European traders began importing them in the 19th century. so the dialogue between African tradition and European modernity is of the essence in the beaded designs here, which date from the early 1900's to the 1970's.
Produced by women as decoration for aprons of various sizes and shapes (each shape specified for a different phase of a woman's life), blankets, capes, body rings, wands and maces, the Ndebele beadwork is characterised by graphically bold and more or less symmetrical rectilinear patterns. Colors ranging from black and white to deep blues and greens tend to be muted in favor of percussive rhythms. The most interesting works here are rectangular aprons for unmarried women bearing repeated images of building with peaked roofs, some of which look like fast-food restaurants. One apron depicts a yellow airliner in a dark blue sky.
At the start of the exhibition is a small wooden rifle covered in mostly white beads; it is said to have been wielded in dances expressing anticolonial resistance. So the Ndebele beadwork is not only visually gripping, but also provokes thoughts about the intersection of art and history.