GLASS LACE: Zulu Beadwork from Maphumulo


Axis Gallery, New York
April 4 – June 28, 2003

“Glass Lace” is the first exhibition focused on the distinctive beadwork style used by Zulu-speaking clans in the Maphumulo region from the 1940s to the 1960s. The technique unique to this area creates a lacy, ruffled texture, built up with overlapping bands of beads.

Zulu custom dictated that a bride, after taking up residence at her husband’s homestead, don the blackened leather skirt of marriage and cover her shoulders as signs of respect for her husband’s parents and ancestors. On ceremonial occasions, beaded capes and aprons worn over the leather skirt underscored this religious function and communicated personal flair and status.

A wife could commission a specialist leatherworker to make a back-skirt for her husband. These expensive and prestigious gifts were also worn only on special occasions.

As with other regional Zulu beadwork styles, Maphumulo beadwork employs a restricted palette. The background color is white, and in older pieces this dominates the composition. The background is ornamentedÑoften in sequenced bars or blocksÑwith turquoise, navy, black, and deep green. This 5-color palette can be highlighted with touches of red, orange, yellow, or pink but no other colors are used.

Other Maphumulo motifs are crosses, a cross-hatch design that may symbolize ancestral protection, and motifs that combine triangle and/or diamond shapes. In some Zulu communities, the diamond motif alludes to the Zulu shield and symbolizes protection, while the triangle symbolizes love because the same Zulu word is used for both “triangle” and “heart” (Boram-Hays 2000).

Though the rectangular compositions of women’s fabric aprons and capes invite comparison with abstract painting, these objects obviously were intended to be draped on the animated human body and combined in full costumes, such as the one displayed on the podium in the center of the gallery.