Beadwork exhibition journeys from South Africa to Dayton


Artwork: “My Mother Peach Tree” by Zondlile Zondo

By Lisa Bennett 

What is beauty? It is a titillating, age-old question that has undoubtedly sparked debates for millennia. For some, beauty is simply happiness. For others, it is a spiritual state akin to “oneness.” In general, beauty is a characteristic of something or someone that causes happiness or pleasure.

One characteristic that isn’t commonly associated with beauty here in the United States is strength. Yet, in the quiet, unassuming village Lidgetton, nestled in the foothills of the Drakensberg Mountains in South Africa, a handful of intrepid artists are redefining the concept of strength as beauty and showing the rest of the world what it means to be a woman.

These artists are called Ubuhle (pronounced: “Uh-buk-lay”) and they are a small group who are part of the Xhosa (pronounced: “Ho-sa”) people that make up a large ethnic population in South Africa. Unfortunately, these proud people are still struggling with the aftermath of apartheid rule. In 1948, apartheid law was enacted in South Africa. This meant that people living and working there were dramatically segregated by race, inciting severe social and economic turmoil. People were forced by strict laws into racial segregation; they couldn’t live together or even work together, which presented challenges.

Like many women living in other impoverished regions, the Ubuhle artists struggled to survive.

The last president under apartheid rule was Frederik Willem de Klerk. President de Klerk worked hard to end apartheid and to establish a unified South Africa. De Klerk passed the presidential torch to Nelson Mandela, who became the first black president. Both were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts to end apartheid. The apartheid system was officially banned in 1994. True change takes time, however. Even today, dramatic inequality between the races persists, especially in the economic sector. Among the poorest populations are unskilled black women. For these individuals, unemployment rates are the highest, everywhere in the country.

Like many women living in other impoverished regions, the Ubuhle artists struggled to survive. Imagine growing up in poverty, where even finding clean drinking water is a challenge and education is so out of reach, it is little more than a pipe dream. Imagine suffering trauma at the hands of low-life criminals with no recourse and no hope for the future. Now, imagine the near-impossible feat of emerging from the depths of that nightmare—not as a fragile victim, but as a strong, productive survivor who not only rises above the worst life has to offer, but conquers it in the process. That is the ethic of an Ubuhle artist. Bev Gibson, co-founder of Ubuhle Beautiful Beads, describes them, saying, “They never saw themselves as victims but have embraced every opportunity given to them.” Now, the Ubuhle Women: Beadwork and the Art of Independence exhibition is on display at the Dayton Art Institute—the first stop on its nationwide tour—through Sept. 10.

The losses they endured along with the frustrations of poverty melted into the canvas.

But how did these lucky women get an opportunity at all? The story begins with an artist named Ntombephi “Induna” Ntobela. Like other women living in the KwaZulu-Natal region, Induna didn’t have electricity or cable TV, so she turned to inexpensive handicrafts as a form of entertainment. One of those handicrafts was beading. To spruce up their clothing, women would often sew beads onto their headscarves, called doek, and skirts. The resulting patterns and motifs varied from woman to woman and village to village, but they were always stunning. Induna decided to take her beading to a higher level and began sewing beads onto a black cloth as a kind of canvas, which she called ntombela. The resulting tapestry was an exquisite work of art she called ndwango (which originally meant “cloth,” but it is now also referred to as “an exquisite beaded artwork”).

Induna began teaching her technique to other women, who loved the idea of creating art to celebrate the important things in their lives. A local resident, Gibson, saw their work and was instantly moved by the beauty of it. In 1999, both Gibson and Induna formed the Ubuhle (which means “beautiful”) community and the Ubuhle Beautiful Beads Company. The community was started to provide the women with a way to use their talent to provide for their families. It wasn’t easy. The women beaded in between chopping wood, caring for children, and everyday chores, which, without the amenities like washing machines and dryers, depleted a lot of their time and energy. As the women beaded, they perfected the art, never wavering in their commitment to excellence or their desire to make a better life for themselves and their families.

The beading process produced an accidental but happy side effect. The intricacy and meticulousness of stitching one bead at a time evoked a peaceful, calming frame of mind and, in doing so, provided a space for healing. The losses they endured along with the frustrations of poverty melted into the canvas. That pain was then transformed into stunning images that shimmered like a night sky as each facet of the Czech glass beads reflected light and the beauty of the artist outwardly. The reflection of light also has a spiritual significance to the Xhosa people. Regardless if they beaded for the sheer joy of it, the healing they gained from it, the spiritual connection, or simply as a means to an end, their efforts paid off. The artistic brilliance of their works had garnered lots of attention, and the Ubuhle artists secured their first exhibition.

“The bottom line is the sheer beauty of the work got the artists their exhibition.”

As so often happens in life, however, the ladder to the top looked more like an avalanche to climb. After everything the artists had struggled through, after all their hard work and personal sacrifices, the Ubuhle artists were once again facing a daunting challenge. This time, a group of individuals tried to rob the artists of their dreams by stealing the artistic property of the works. Gibson rushed to find a way to protect the artists. After investing much of her own time and money and a lot of hard work, she was finally able to secure the artists’ intellectual property rights and, in doing so, their futures. But Gibson doesn’t consider herself a hero. “The bottom line is the sheer beauty of the work got the artists their exhibition,” she says.

While the fight over rights to the work was an initial setback, in an almost surreal way, it proved that the Ndwango isn’t just a beautiful work of art; it is a deeply personal recording of the spirit of the artist and her world, much like the ancient Egyptian priests would record the lives of the pharaohs in hieroglyphs painted on tomb walls and the Catholic saints would spend years in scriptoriums, copying their sacred text, the Bible, by hand. The combination of Gibson’s tenacity, the beauty of the artwork, and the artists’ dedication to an unwavering standard of excellence helped the artists start their first exhibition, which turned out to be just a starting point.

From the Museum of Arts and Design in New York City to the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum in Washington, D.C., the exhibition is now on its way to the Dayton Art Institute as the first venue in a tour organized by International Arts & Artists, a nonprofit dedicated to fostering cross-cultural understanding through the arts, in cooperation with co-curators Gibson, James Green, and Ubuhle Beads.

…the dead are referred to in the present tense because the people believe that their spirits are still with us.

Each Ndwango tells a unique story about the artist, her family, and/or someone who has passed on. Induna, for example, uses blue, white, and red beads to honor her mother, Nomatikulu, who was a traditional healer, or sangoma. Many of the current works were created as memorials to people who have passed on. In fact, in Xhosa culture, the dead are referred to in the present tense because the people believe that their spirits are still with us. Some artists use the Ndwangos as a physical manifestation of an ancestor, a way to be reminded of and to connect with a departed loved one. Artist Zandile Ntobela sees her father in one of her works. Nonhlakanipho Mndiyatha sees her grandmother represented by the bull in her Ndwango. To date, the Ubuhle artists have lost five of their sisters to sickness.

Not only do the memorials serve to honor the deceased, but the process to create them inspires and heals—in one case, quite literally. Zandile’s little sister Ntsoaki was saved from near death because Zandile had been working with the beads instead of working in Bizana, which would have put her far away from getting her sister the access to doctors and medicine she needed to survive. The artwork also reflects their heritage and beliefs, preserving their cultural traditions.

Just as the “why” of each piece being created is an important part of the work as a whole, the “how” is important too. Traditionally, the colors used in Ndwango were white, blue, and pink. The bold colors were introduced by Zondlile Zondo, who used the colors to show her spiritual fortitude against sickness and poverty. Her introduction of the brighter colors was instrumental in the further development of Ndwango. Yet, it’s not just the brilliant colors and patterns that catch the viewer’s eye and draw them in; it’s the simplicity, the universality of the images that speak to our core emotions, our humanity. They remind us that our dreams may be different, but we dream nonetheless. And we all can appreciate beauty.

And perhaps, as in the case of the Ubuhle artists, beauty is the success that comes with perseverance.

Ubuhle Women: Beadwork and the Art of Independence runs through Sept. 10 at the Dayton Art Institute, 456 Belmonte Park North in Grafton Hill. For more information, please call 937.223.4278 or visit DaytonArtInstitute.org.

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Lisa Bennett
Reach DCP freelance writer Lisa Bennett at LisaBennett@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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