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Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Inkciyo - The Magic Of Old Xhosa Bead Work - And Its Value On The African Arts Market Today

I want to seize the moment to thank our readers for the appreciation and interest they have shown in our article "The Significance of Beads and Bead work in the Xhosa Culture".
When preparing and writing this article, I was not aware, that it would fall into and fill a niche of interest on the Internet and that it would bring us hundreds of new readers. We thank you for all your emails and again we can only say, you are the ones, who inspire us and make us come up with new ideas for the Mdantsane Way Magazine.

Because of my passion for old African Trade beads, African Art and Jewelry I have been ordained to continue writing on this topic and I thoroughly enjoy doing so, but we will get a little bit philosophical today.

The Province of the Eastern Cape is home to many ethnic groups, and although it is the poorest  province in South Africa, it has an incredibly rich culture and African heritage. 

Genuine old Xhosa bead work pieces, coming from the villages and the rural areas of the Eastern Cape, that have been used in traditional ceremonies are extremely hard to find and are seldom sold to foreigners or even locals. Their symbolic value is priceless. The fact, that a piece has been used continuously in rituals and initiation ceremonies makes it "holy" in a way.

The Tradition Is Alive

The tradition of beading is alive throughout the Eastern Cape and beaded jewelry and adornments have taken on modern shapes and designs. Bead work can be bought everywhere, on the street markets, in shops, airports, hotel boutiques and even in shopping centers. 
Many designs are exact copies of the bead work pieces created from the 1930's onwards in the Eastern Cape, when glass beads became a definite part of the traditional way of dressing in the Xhosa culture.
But it is rare to find old Xhosa bead work pieces for sale on the market, that are 50 to 70 years old.
The genuine old pieces are treated as heirlooms and they are treasured by their owners and kept in the families.

Old Xhosa bead work radiates some sort of magic, that is hard to grasp. Holding them in your hands, you can feel the pulse of the culture and the heritage they embody. They have transcended the lives of the many people who have worn them at very important, life changing stages in their lives. 
Am I romantic, or even a poet? Yes sure I am - but I believe, that this is true. The feeling a person has, when wearing a piece of jewelry, a special piece of jewelry made for a specific occasion, descends into the piece of jewelry.
Today we are dedicating time to a very special type of bead work item worn traditionally since centuries by the young girls of the Xhosa and Thembu clans - the Inkciyo.  The Thembu speak the Xhosa language but they belong to an independent kingdom.

An old Inkciyo exhibited in the King Williams Town Museum in the Eastern Cape Of South Africa

The Inkciyo is a sort of apron, specifically made for the young girls who have reached the stage of becoming a woman. 

Amongst the Thembu and Xhosa people, when a young girl gets her first period, she withdraws for a whole month from the members of her community. She goes into seclusion. 
She becomes a Ntonjane. Ntonjane is a term, that could best be described as the life stage of evolution from an insect pupa into a butterfly.
It is the transition phase where a girl matures to a woman. During this important time, the girl is instructed in the tasks, accepted behavior, costumes and responsibilities, that a Xhosa woman has to comply with in her culture. 

Usually, a woman from her father's family, for instance the sister of her father guides her during the period of seclusion and teaches her everything she needs to know for her life as a woman. Her first task is to bead her Inkciyo or "cache sexe" (the french expression for a pubis apron), which is the only garment she is permitted to wear, except for a blanket.

A Thembu Girl Wearing The Inkciyo

During the one month long period seclusion the girl wears nothing but the Inkciyo. Her breasts are bare and she stays in her natural beauty. 

The period of Ntonjane seclusion ends with a celebration and a feast welcoming the girl into womanhood.

After the seclusion, has ended the apron is not worn by the girl anymore. Most of the time it is kept and passed on to the next girl, who has reached the stage of becoming initiated.  After all girls of the family have matured and there is no girl left to inherit the apron, it stays in the family as a heirloom.

But often the Inkciyo is taken apart and the beads are re-used for beading a new Inkciyo for another girl when her time comes to be initiated.
I have also heard the saying, that some Thembu women wear them under their full skirts. 

The Ritual Is Important

Understanding the tradition of handing down an item from one person to the next in a family for a certain ritual, makes it also clear why heirlooms are more than symbolic objects and why they have spiritual, emotional and mystical qualities as well. This does not only apply to African societies.
Just think of the engagement ring your husband gave you and that your granddaughter is now wearing. Or the wedding dress made of old ivory colored, lace that hangs neatly packed away and untouched in a cupboard in your basement or in a store room. And nobody is allowed to touch it without your permission.

Think of pressed flowers, that a woman has kept for many years between the pages of a book. The flowers do not only serve as a memory to her. When she is looking at them, her hair already grey, they seem to carry the words, that once accompanied them, when they were given to her by the one she loved.

I believe that whatever you do in great passion, deep sincerity and with a strong belief transcends the object, that you use while doing it. That is the essence of a ritual. Through your own inner conviction and determination the ritual gets the strength and power, which in turn flows into the objects, that are used to fulfill the ritual. The ritual itself gets reinforced through the spiritual power of the whole community believing in it.
Still many people use lucky charms in 2013.

It is understandable now, why people, who think this way are willing to spend enormous amounts of money on old genuine bead work, African artifacts, masks etc.of different origins.
Not only the object is acquired but with it comes the power, the tradition of a foreign place and  the strength of it.  

The International African Art Market

Looking at the dynamics of the international trade of African artifacts, including trade beads and beaded jewelry, it is easy to see, that many people in this world believe in the soul of an object.

On the international online market place E-bay many traders deal with items coming from Africa since years and some have acquired great expert reputation by now. Xhosa bead work jewelry pieces and adornments range among the most desirable and fetch prices of several hundred dollars per piece.

Africa Direct is a trader operating on E-bay since 1997, specialising in African Trade Beads, African Art and African Jewelry. With a feedback of 43367 and 99,8% positive rating they are counted amongst the power sellers on E-Bay.
They have been honored with E-Bay;s hall of fame awards and by E-bay giving works through which they have raised more than 86.000$ for charity. Africa Direct is owned by two American women Elizabeth Bennett and Sarah Luther.
It all began after a year of wandering through Southern Africa in their van with their multi-racial family, they say!

A delightful apron made out of cotton thread fringes decorated with glass beads with strip of yellow beads. The strap of yellow beads has ritual purpose. The yellow color is said to induce fertility ( see Marie-Louise Labelle, Beads of Life, p. 121).

Here is what they have to say about their passion: "African art, trade beads and ethnic jewelry are both business and passion for Sara and me. We started buying African art twenty years ago as gifts for our children, four of whom are adopted and are African-American. We had been active in anti-apartheid politics for some time. In 1994, when Mandela was elected, we took the three still-at-home kids out of school and moved to southern Africa for eight months. We bought a used food panel van, converted it into a camper and traveled fifteen thousand miles through South Africa, Lesotho, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Botswana and Swaziland. We weren't consciously beginning a business...but we noticed we were buying more than we could keep, give away, or sell at garage sales. In the beginning, we did shows and held open houses. Now, most of our sales are online".

Xhosa beaded pubis apron Inkciyo by E-bay seller Africa Direct

"We go on six-week buying trips to Africa every few years, and bring back containers. We also have African traders in our driveway almost daily. We buy from more than one hundred traders (including two women!) who come from both coasts, fly in from France and send shipments from Africa. We care about supporting living artists, and buy from co-ops in South Africa, Zambia, Kenya, Uganda, Swaziland and other places."

Some of the most beautiful old beaded Xhosa adornments and jewelry pieces have certainly found their way into homes in foreign countries.

Glass beads, Cotton threads, buttons made of mother-of-pearls

Beaded detail of an Inkciyo sold by Africa Direct on E-Bay


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