Traveling Exhibition of Stunning Bead-art from South Africa Tells a Luminous Story of Independence, Migration, and Memory

June 15, 2022 kpillman No Comments

The Memorial Art Gallery of the University of Rochester is pleased to announce Ubuhle Women: Beadwork and the Art of Independence. This spectacular exhibition showcases a new form of bead art, the ndwango (“cloth”), developed by a community of women living and working together in the rural province of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. The black fabric on which the Ubuhle women work is reminiscent of the Xhosa headscarves and skirts that many of them grew up wearing. The artists stretch this textile like a canvas and use colored Czech glass beads to transform the flat cloth into a contemporary art form. Using skills handed down through generations, and working in their own unique style “directly from the soul”—in the words of artist and co-founder Ntombephi “Induna” Ntobela—the women create abstract as well as figurative subjects for their ndwangos. Ubuhle Women will be on view July 17–October 23, 2022.

Ubuhle (Uh-Buk-lay) means “beauty” in the Xhosa and Zulu languages, and it eloquently describes the shimmering quality of light on glass that has a particular spiritual significance for the Xhosa people. From a distance, ndwangos seem to be formed from a continuous surface, but as each individual bead catches the light, the viewer becomes aware of the meticulous skill that goes into each work and the scale of the artists’ creative ambition. A single panel can take more than 10 months to complete.

Ubuhle was established in 1999 on a former sugar plantation north of the city of Durban in KwaZulu-Natal, when Ntombephi “Induna” Ntobela and Bev Gibson became friends and shared a vision of combining skills to create employment for rural women. Together they created a means for local women to use inherited beading traditions as a way of achieving financial independence. As a master-beader, Ntombephi also trained other women who were not familiar with this tradition, so that they, too, could join this community.

Bev Gibson and Ntombephi “Induna” Ntobela created Ubuhle in response to the consequences of a breakdown of family life and traditional values caused by migration in South Africa. Ntombephi “Induna” Ntobela, the wife of a cane-cutter, had left Bizana in the Eastern Cape with her husband to work on a sugar plantation in the province of KwaZulu-Natal. By helping the world to see the ndwangos as important and dynamic contemporary art, Gibson and Ntobela created the opportunity for women to develop their own source of income and to build a route to financial independence by commercializing a centuries-old traditional practice. 

Since 2006, the Ubuhle community has lost five members to HIV/AIDS, cancer, and other illnesses, nearly halving the number of active artists. Many of the artworks on view throughout the exhibition function as memorials to Ubuhle artists who have lost their lives. Remembering the dead is a key motivation for the creation of many of the artworks, and it imbues them with a spiritual significance. Because their technique of stitching beads onto fabric is such a slow, meticulous process the act of beading itself serves as a form of therapy. Beading becomes a way of setting down the issues that are closest to the artists’ hearts; a way of grieving, and a place to convey feelings and memories. In a sense, through their presence in the artists’ thoughts during the act of creation, the dead become a part of the very construction of the work itself, and so the ndwango becomes a site of memory.

Ubuhle Women: Beadwork and the Art of Independence was developed by the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum, Washington, DC in cooperation with Curators Bev Gibson, Ubuhle Beads, and James Green, and is organized for tour by International Arts & Artists, Washington, DC.

In Rochester, the exhibition is sponsored by the Rubens Family Foundation and Nocon & Associates, a private wealth advisory practice of Ameriprise Financial Services, Inc. Funding is also provided by the Gallery Council of the Memorial Art Gallery, Paul Marc and Pamela Miller Ness, and Marion Swett Robinson, with additional support from FULL MEA5URE, Caitlin and Benn Kireker, Partners + Napier, Mary Ellen Burris, Mary Goldman Crowe, Carolyn Ettinger, Dr. Mattie Alleyne, Barbara, Daniel, Lisa, and Susan Hoffman, Mark and Mona Friedman Kolko, Theta Alpha Zeta Chapter of Zeta Phi Beta, Joyce Boucher, The Rochester (NY) Chapter, The Links Inc., Dr. Karal Ann Marling, and Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc.

Support is also provided by the Thomas and Marion Hawks Memorial Fund, the Robert L. and Mary L. Sproull Fund, and the Nancy R. Turner Fund for Special Exhibitions.

About International Arts & Artists International Arts & Artists in Washington, DC, is a non-profit arts service organization dedicated to increasing cross-cultural understanding and exposure to the arts internationally, through exhibitions, programs and services to artists, arts institutions and the public. Visit www.artsandartists.org.

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