How miraculous and how moving is the triumph of the human spirit over adversity. The Ndebele people of South Africa have been kicked around for a hundred years or more and were recently forced into a barren "homeland" from which they have to travel hours a day to work and hours back again. They have no reason to be anything but depressed, resentful and worse.
If they are, you would never know it from their art. "Ndebele Beadwork," which opened yesterday at the Baltimore Museum of Art (through Jan. 13) is a testament to the skill and seriousness of this people's art, but it is even more a testament to their creativity and resilience.
An exclusive province of the women, Ndebele art is notable for brightly painted architecture and intricate and imaginative beadwork that reflects a delight in design for its own sake.
Although beads were introduced to southern Africa by the Portuguese in the 16th century, no one knows how far back Ndebele beadwork goes. Extant examples date as far back as the late 19th century and show a gradual design evolution depending on changing times and the materials that were available. The importance of beadwork is reflected in its use on everything from household utensils, such as drinking vessels, to ceremonial maces to dolls and particularly to clothes. Beaded clothes are made for men, but especially for women, who adorn themselves with headdresses and trains falling from them, mantles, skirts, and hoops for arms, legs and body.
One of the most intriguing aspects of the Ndebele designs, as this instructive and happy show points out, is the apparent lack of religious or indeed any sort of symbolic significance to the design elements. Rather than gods or spirits, Ndebele designs reflect aspects of everyday life, from letters of the alphabet -- modeled on license plates -- to trees, occasionally people, and especially architecture. The latter may include abstracted designs that incorporate both a floor plan and an elevation, or a representation of a building complete with interior rooms and even electric light fixtures.
While retaining recognizable elements, Ndebele designs have changed over the years, as one of the text panels explains, from the largely white pieces of the early part of the century to increasing use of bold color. In the 1980s, practice of the art fell off as women took jobs in industry, but there is indication of a renewal in recent years.
There are, surprisingly, several collections of Ndebele beadwork Baltimore, so while the BMA does not have a collection itself, curator Frederick Lamp has been able to assemble this show from local sources and one New York collection. The curator says it is the first American museum show of Ndebele beadwork he knows of, and contains an almost complete range of forms and designs.
It's attractively installed leading up to two clothed mannequins seated in front of a wall-sized photograph of an example of the elaborately painted Ndebele architecture to which the beadwork related. A tour of the exhibit culminating with this presentation is a progression of pure pleasure.