A Brief History of Contemporary Tsonga - Shangaan Beadwork
Somewhere between 1892 and 1920, there was an exponential explosion of bead-working amongst the Tsonga-Shangaan people of South Africa. It was different from other Southern African beading traditions, particularly in the way pattern and colour symmetry was ‘broken´ in a quirky way.
Much beadwork is worn to develop specific images of the body, working distinct stages of a person´s progress through life, with some beadwork being prescribed for more particular uses. However, in the 1970s the market for African art in South Africa opened up to include objects formerly described as ‘craft´; and a number of art institutions, art dealers and art collectors began to buy all forms of southern African beadwork.
Traditional beaded cloths, known as ‘MINCEKA´ which had once wrapped around women´s bodies were transformed, and, by the late 1980s, they were being produced as artworks, without any intention , on the part of the makers, that they would be worn. New iconography was introduced, from wild animals to figures and angels.
The expansive decoration of the Minceka by Tsonga-Shangaan women highlights the extensive ways in which they have maintained a grasp on contemporary possibilities over more than a century. The cloth, beads and other accoutrements of their dress, are all imported commmodities, which have been absorbed, adapted and rendered as ‘traditional´ Tsonga-Shangaan items.
To these Minceka have been added not only embroidery thread in numerous colours, but also mirrors, safety pins and plastic cracker toys, all of which are used to create patterns and motifs with particular resonance in Shonga-Shangaan world-views.
In addition to the bright motifs and materials of modernity, women now added another, crucial elements of modern identity their names, written in beads. Not only does the use of lettering imply a level of literacy, and therefore education and modernity on the part of the maker, but the names also serve as signatures of these women. The names are often accompanied by the date of the artist´s birth, allowing us to speculate that most of these beaded and embroidered Minceka appear to post-date 1950.
Most of the modern picture Minceka are being made by members of the Makhubele family. They focus on the political history of the African National Congress (ANC) and the dawn of democratic government in South Africa as well to the commemoration of true love in the form of Nelson Mandela´s marriage to Graca Machel. Several of the minceka also celebrate various milestones in the life of Mandela such as various recent birthdays - by depicting, in beads, the designs of the shirts he has famously worn on these occasions.
With thanks to: Nessa Leibhammer (Ed.): Dungamanzi / Stirring Waters - Tsonga and Shangaan Art from southern Africa. (2007, Wits University Press, Johannesburg). This excellent, well-illustrated book served as a catalogue for a recent, extensive exhibition of Tsonga-Shangaan art, co-curated by Nessa Leibhamer and Natalie Knight - at the S.A. National Gallery, Cape Town from 13 February to 8 June 2008).
© 2012 All rights reserved. Origination by Di Conradie