Ndebele artist (Gauteng, South Africa), Backskirt (isithimba), ca. 1920-1930. Beads and leather, 23 in. x 25 in. Gift of Evelyn Salk. 2001-14-4
Ndebele artist (Gauteng, South Africa), Bridal veil (siyaya), ca. 1920-1930. Beads and thread, 10 in. x 17 in. Gift of Evelyn Salk. 2001-14-3

Ndebele are Zulu-speaking communities in southern Africa for whom beadwork holds significant social and symbolic meaning, particularly in the lives of women. In comparison to other African cultures, where both men and women are involved in beading, for Ndebele, women are the sole designers and creators of these arts.[1] The elaborate and labor intensive designs are made by hand, and each aspect, from the size and shape of the garment, to the color of the beads, signifies something about the wearer, such as age, social class, spiritual state, and marital status.[2] Throughout many Zulu-speaking groups, the symbolic aspects of beadwork—the colors, patterns, and materials—can be understood as operating with the same complexities and meaning as a language, and like languages, similarities are shared among the numerous cultural groups that can be found throughout southern Africa.[3] For Ndebele in particular, the complex designs are often geometrical, rather than figural, and they resemble patterns that are found in murals painted on the sides of Ndebele homes.[4] These murals are also painted primarily by women; the fact that these two art forms are in dialogue with one another can be understood as a way for Ndebele women to further cement their social and cultural identities through the language of beadwork.

Many of the objects, such as this isiyaya (bridal veil) and isithimba (backskirt), are to be worn on the body during important ceremonies and rituals.[5] For example, an isiyaya is worn in Ndebele wedding ceremonies and initiations into womanhood, to hide the woman’s face during the transition from one state of being to another. Along with veils, Ndebele brides also wear long trains called nyoga, which are made of white beads woven together with string by their female relatives.[6] The patterns, length and structure of the nyoga veil can signal things such as whether the bride will be the groom’s first wife, or if she is still a virgin.[7] The isiyaya in KAM’s collection features two rows of strands of small, cylindrical white beads, bound together at the top with strips of leather and held on the wearer’s head by two beaded straps that crisscross to form an ‘X’. Each strand of white beads on the longer row is accented with a red bead at the tip; when the veil is worn, this row of beads falls down the back of the head and neck. The shorter row of beads is accented with a blue bead at the tip of each strand, and when worn falls over the eyes and face. Throughout many Zulu-speaking groups, the color red can often symbolize women and fertility, white has associations to ancestors and purity, and blue, although less commonly used, seems to be significant in communicating notions of love.[8] When combined into a veil, it is clear to see how all of these separate meanings come together to form a unifying message about a bride’s readiness for marriage and motherhood.

Like veils, garments such as backskirts and aprons can also be worn during significant events or stages of women’s lives. The isithimba in the museum’s collection would generally be worn by unmarried girls who have reached the age to take a spouse. This skirt is made of a large oval-shaped portion of leather, overlaid with a row of long strands of white beads, and decorated at the top with a multi-colored geometric pattern and three roles of brass rings. The skirt would be tied at the waist and worn over the buttocks. The leather hide is meant to draw attention by hugging the buttocks and hips, and the swaying of the beads increases this affect when the woman moves.[9] The small brass rings that embellish the top of this Isithimba are called nkosi, and are used to signal the status of the wearer.[10]

As with the veils, this Isithimba incorporates colors in order to communicate information about the wearer: her class, the ties that she has to other women in her community or family who made the garment, and her interest in marriage and family.[11] Because the relationship between generations of women is so deeply significant to the process of making these garments, ideas of what it means to be a woman in Ndebele culture, and who a person is in the social network of their community are literally and figuratively woven into the designs of these garments.

In the past, the beads used in these kinds of garments were made from locally available materials such as shells, metals, and animal bones and hides.[12] However, as trade with Europe began to increase throughout southern Africa, beads began to be made primarily of glass imported from India and China.[13] As a result, some of the traditional associations with the materials, which were chosen for their spiritual or symbolic nature, or their abilities to protect the wearer and promote their status, began to change as well.[14] Today, much of Ndebele beadwork is made of glass or plastic beads. However, the larger significance that beadwork has in the lives of women, and the way that meaning is communicated through colors, geometric patterns, and movement continues to still resonates through these new materials.

Author: Molly (Henry) Fox, Master's student in Art History, 2017.


[1] Deborah Stokes, “Rediscovered Treasures: African Beadwork at the Field Museum, Chicago,” African Arts Autumn (1999): 29.

[2] Gary van Wyk, “Illuminated Signs: Style and Meaning in the Beadwork of the Xhosa- and Zulu-speaking Peoples,” African Arts Autumn (2003):14.

[3] van Wyk, “Illuminated Signs,” 12.

[4] Elizabeth Ann Schneider, “Ndebele Mural Art,” African Arts 18:3 (1985): 60-66.

[5] Barbara W Blackmun, “Recent Exhibitions: Asking for Eyes: The Visual Voice of Southeast Africa,” African Arts Spring (2006): 85.

[6] Blackmun, “Asking for Eyes,” 85.

[7] Rhoda Levinsohn, Art and Craft of Southern Africa: Treasures in Transition (Craighall: Delta Books, 1984), 27

[8] van Wyk, “Illuminated Signs,” 26-28.

[9] Gary van Wyk, e-mail message to Kerry Morgan, August 15, 2002.

[10] Ibid.

[11] van Wyk, “Illuminated Signs,” 26-28.

[12] Ibid, 19.

[13] Marie-Louise Labelle, “Beads of Life,” 12.

[14] Ibid, 14.