Axis Gallery, New York
May 8, 2001 – June 30, 2001
“Zulu” is a museum-style exhibition, accompanied by in-depth labels. It features 116 objects of sculpture, beadwork, costume, leatherwork, ceramics, and basketry made by the Zulu and closely related North Nguni peoples. It is the largest exhibition of Zulu material in the United States since the 1970s. It highlights how underrepresented these arts are within African art history and in collections. “Zulu” explains how the peoples known today as Zulu have diverse origins, which are expressed in the distinct art styles that the exhibition separates and contrasts.
The opening section explains the subtle anthropomorphism of Zulu spoons and zoomorphism of Zulu, Swazi, and Ngoni headrests, whose shared Nguni links are evident in the cattle symbolism of their headrests. By contrast, although the Tsonga-Shanganeheadrest can be linked historically to Nguni culture, its form and symbolism differ.
Separate exhibition walls feature beadwork styles from the Maphumulo, Estcourt, Msinga, Ndwedwe, Nongoma, and Ngwane/Hlubi regions. Nineteenth-century beadwork is displayed in the North Gallery and in the drawers in the South Gallery. Contrasting styles are juxtaposed in the collections of hats and beer pot covers from different regions.
The fourteen staffs on display, both figurative and abstract, date predominantly from the 19th century. The human-sized ladle and enormous meat platter were ceremonially used in chiefs’ households in the 1800s. The rare 19th-century sgraffito powder horn and the mat-rack panel by Ntizenyanga Qwabe (born c. 1900) both feature low-relief carving.
The exhibition also includes ceramic and basketry vessels for brewing, storing and serving beer, which is associated with the ancestors. Three pairs of earplugs demonstrate historical changes in the design of these adornments.
A contemporary focus is provided by the award-winning documentary photographs of Paul Weinberg and the work of Thabiso Phokompe.