Dance in light: Xhosa textiles and beadwork


Axis Gallery, New York
December 12, 2001 – January 26, 2002

“Dance in Light: Xhosa Textiles and Beadwork” is the first US exhibition on the art of the Xhosa peoples of South Africa. It features complete costumes of the Xhosa, Thembu, Mfengu, Xesibe, and Mpondo peoples, drawn from a unique collection assembled by Joan Broster between the 1950s and early 1960s, when the virtuosity of Xhosa beadwork traditions peaked. Broster wrote four books on this subject.

Among the objects displayed are the largest surviving panel of beadwork fabric from the Xhosa peoples, a c.1930 Mpondo panel on sinew that buttoned onto a ceremonial blanket. Of similar age are beadfabric collars from the Thembu and Xhosa peoples, and a beaded ceremonial spear and flywhisk. The 40 display drawers contain more than XYZ museum-quality objects dating from the early 1800s onward, arranged chronologically and thematically.

Xhosa peoples never carved masks or figures; instead their religious art was beadwork, worn during ceremonial dances and other occasions. The exhibition also reveals how beadwork and dress flagged the wearer’s ethnicity, age group, marital status, and other aspects of identity. The reflectivity of glass beads and shells were associated with the spirits, and particular colors and patterns conveyed symbolic meanings.

During much of the 20th century, South Africa was the world’s largest importer of beads, fueling the development of this remarkable art tradition, which shares many similarities with Native American beadwork.