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Xhosa beadwork, like all African art, is steeped in symbolism and meaning. It has a rich and colourful history and has faced extinction with the encroachment and interference of the civilised, western, Christian world. Fortunately it has survived over the centuries and is still practiced by pockets of women in some regions of South Africa, to keep the tradition alive as well as to keep food on the table.
Historically, beadwork played an important role in providing people with a sense of belonging and a cultural identity. It helped to provide a solid traditional base on which they could base their ethics, morals and ways of living. Beadwork also served a valuable spiritual purpose, as it was believed that it linked the living to their ancestors. Social identities could be identified through the beadwork ensembles worn. Age, gender, grade, marital status, social rank, role and sometimes even spiritual state could be discerned by the patterns of beadwork worn. It provided an important fashion service, giving voice to self-expression and reflected the individual styles of creator and wearer alike. The beadwork often held symbolic references in the use of colour, the pattern formation and motifs. The details allowed the beadwork to convey complex messages that could be understood within a specific area.
In the early 1800s it was the fashion for high-ranking Xhosa women to wear elaborate, conical shaped headdresses made of antelope skin and heavily beaded on one side. The headdress was placed on the head and folded forward to form a beaded crown with the narrow end falling over the forehead. The beads used to make hats like this were not cheap and could cost a husband the equivalent of three oxen. In the 1830s, when beads began to flood the market, these hats became less popular and less telling as signs of high rank. Coloured kerchiefs and spotted head cloths came in vogue and by the 1850s only the royal women still wore the conical beaded hats.
The colour white was regarded as the colour of purity and meditation, therefore only white beads were offered to the spirits and very rarely to the creator. Little else is known about the meaning of colour attached to Xhosa beads. Red beads were associated with Xhosa royalty, yellow beads meant fertility and green symbolised new life.
Some of the more popular motifs used in beadwork are stars, trees, rivers, diamonds, quadrangles, chevrons, circles and parallel lines. These are combined to form a pattern. The patterns may be age-relevant, but they are usually fairly simple. The purpose of the beadwork may be to tell a story to relay a message; it could also be for decorative purposes only. There are however patterns in certain combinations that do relate to particular things, for example some symbols represent states of relationships, pregnancy, bride price, number of children and even personal qualities like diligence.
Currently the Reeston Beadwork project near East London, South Africa, works to keep the traditions of Xhosa beadwork alive; ensuring that the symbolic meanings behind each item are not lost.