The Ackland recently acquired—by gift and purchase from the distinguished collection of Norma Canelas Roth and William Roth of Winter Haven, Florida—29 fine pieces of nineteenth- and twentieth-century beadwork by peoples of the South East Cape region of what is now South Africa. Few museums can claim such rich holdings.
South African beadwork is an art of vibrant colors, sophisticated patterns, and varied textures. The works on view were made by women from three population groups in the area: the Mfengu, the Zulu, and the Ndebele. Of particular note are rare examples of nineteenth-century beadwork, probably collected by European Christian missionaries.
Instead of the carved wooden masks and figurative sculpture so often seen in museum collections of African art, this new acquisition shifts our attention to the work of women, with less emphasis on ritual objects and more on the adornment of everyday life and its significant moments. There are traditions of beaded art throughout the African continent. For South Africa, this hybrid form of expression developed with the ready availability of glass beads imported by British traders, beginning in the mid-nineteenth century.
Unidentified artist, Collar, Mfengu, South African, early 20th century; glass beads, fiber, leather, mother-of-pearl buttons. Ackland Art Museum, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Gift of Norma Canelas Roth and William Roth, 2017.17.