Ubuhle Women: Beadwork and the Art of Independence

June 15–September 8, 2024

A large, colorful beaded tapestry. Two people are working on it. Only their hands are visible.
Photograph by Susana Raab, Ubuhle Exhibition Records, Anacostia Community Museum, Smithsonian Institution

Ubuhle Women: Beadwork and the Art of Independence showcases a new form of bead art, the ndwango (“cloth”), developed by a community of women living and working together in a rural area of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. The black fabric on which the Ubuhle artists work is reminiscent of the Xhosa headscarves and skirts that many of them wore growing up. By stretching this textile like a canvas, the artists use colored Czech and Miyuki glass beads to transform the flat cloth into a contemporary artform. Using skills handed down through generations and working in their own unique style “directly from the soul”—in the words of artist Ntombephi “Induna” Ntobela—the women create abstract as well as figurative subjects for their ndwangos.

Ubuhle was established in 1999 on a sugar plantation north of Durban in KwaZulu-Natal, when Ntobela and Bev Gibson became friends and shared a vision of combining their academic educational background and traditional education to create a platform for women denied a scholarly education, one that could reach national and international markets. This vision was achieved by combining these different skill bases. Ntobela, a master beader, educated by her grandmother in this tradition, trained other women so that they too could join Ubuhle: Beautiful Beads.

Ubuhle means “beauty” in the Xhosa and Zulu languages, and eloquently describes the shimmering quality of light on glass that, for the Xhosa people, has a particular spiritual significance. From a distance, each panel seems to be a continuous surface, but as each tiny individual bead catches the light, the viewer becomes aware of the meticulous skill that goes into each artwork and the sheer scale of the artist’s creative ambition: a single panel can take more than a year to complete, depending on its size, the complexity of the design, and the size of the beads used.

Ubuhle Women: Beadwork and the Art of Independence tour is developed by the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum, Washington, DC, in cooperation with curators Bev Gibson, Ubuhle Beads, and James Green, and is organized for tour by International Arts & Artists, Washington, DC. Support for this exhibition is sponsored by the Evelyn B. Metzger Exhibition Fund.

A logo with the text "I. A. & A.: International Arts and Artists".

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