A brief explanation about African adornments, their historical context, materials, trade and social usage.
Body adornments made from teeth, claws, shells, bone, stone, ivory, amber, and wood were used by our earliest ancestors. These natural materials were perceived and worn as a form of: Magic – for personal protection against man, beast and the elements. For healing to strengthen parts of the body, for fertility, prowess and stamina, and as an antidote to illness. They are a means to communicate with the spirits, or to draw them to the locus of the body, and are still worn by diviners and medicine men in current times.
Metal beads and anklets with a similar significance, were an indigenous tradition, and were fashioned from gold, silver, copper and iron or alloys such as brass and bronze. The prototypes of this jewellery were finely crafted by means of the lost wax process usually made by highly skilled castes of blacksmiths i.e the Fra-fra people of Ghana or the Bella of the Sahel region. The visual language of these items designated the wearer as belonging to a tribe, identified them as being a particular age, status, rank and profession. Besides ornamentation, these items served a variety of abstract purposes: They could be ceremonial serving as props for the royal court in Ghana, cast into talismans for the nomadic Tuareg in Mali, function as weapons in Kenya, or made into items of religious significance, by the Copts of Ethiopia. Metal anklets were also traded as currency across Africa. From the distribution of this concept, we sense the silent trade routes traversing the continent. Used for bride price in the Congo they could be recycled and forged into agricultural tools as necessity dictated.
In Africa, beads are the oldest imported artifacts. Portable, durable and beautiful, glass beads were bartered by the Phoenicians, Romans, Arabs, Dravidians and Portuguese for gold, precious metals and stones, ivory, timber, spices and slaves. Different varieties, sizes, colours and quantities of beads were marketed for a particular resource or as a speciality item to different tribes. The system of availability, control and resale of this commodity developed into sophisticated economic and political strategies under the hegemony of powerful African chiefs. At the same time, as the demand increased, glass bead making in Europe evolved into a competitive and secretive industry. Examples of the finest work were from the island of Murano in Venice, which dominated the market between the 16th and 18th century.
Body adornments of metal, glass and plastic beautified the body and attracted sexual attention. The jewel like colours, shiny surfaces, translucent effects of beads were aesthetically pleasing and complimented tattooing and body paint. Beads could be worn singly, combined into any design, worn on any part of the body for embellishment, or massed into heavy accumulations for dramatic effect. Beads were exchanged as tokens of love and affection by both sexes, served as part of a dowry, and were used as markers within the family to celebrate milestones such as initiation, puberty ceremonies and village rituals.
Some groups, treasured tiny seed beads. Passionate about their vibrant colour and small scale, Africans used them to fashioned filigree or sculptural forms: Strings were turned into amazing corsets worn by the Dinka. Or woven into long lacy panels called snakes by the Ndebele, or beads were reinvented as clothing sewn onto a backing of cloth, leather, and raffia. The creativity of form, use of materials and colour combination is endless. Today African women make the transition from beading traditionally, to working in a modern fashion idiom. Current interest in the Nigerian fashion industry may reawaken the giant potential of the visual language: The fantastic forms, colours, and styles of African beading, rock!.