Beaded head and African beading

beaded head African handicrafts paris france


The beaded head comes from African beading, an ancient form of craftsmanship that has been practiced for centuries. It's a highly detailed and meticulous art form, with each piece requiring hours of hard work to create. African beadwork often features bright colors, geometric patterns and symbolic motifs. These motifs reflect the cultural heritage of its creators. As well as being an aesthetically pleasing work of art, African beadwork is also a powerful symbol of cultural preservation in the face of globalization and assimilation into Western cultures.

The origins of African beading

Beading is the art or craft of decorating objects with strung beads. The practice is particularly common among certain ethnic groups in sub-Saharan Africa, including the Bamiléké of Cameroon, who have made it an art in its own right, integrating it into the symbolism of their ancestral customs.

The art of creating and using pearls is very ancient. Beads have been discovered in Africa, including a pearl earthenware find in Egypt dating back to 1802-1450 BC. Several African countries, apart from Egypt, have beading traditions. Aggry beads, a type of decorated glass bead, are used by Ghanaians and others in West Africa to make necklaces and bracelets. In Mauritania, Kiffa beads in powdered glass represent a beading tradition that may date back to 1200 AD. After the death of the last traditional Kiffa craftsmen in the 1970s, a group of Cameroonian women revitalized this African craft.

Bamiléké beaded objects

The gradual, methodical appropriation of bead and cowrie art by women, known as "Amazons", has been taking place in the Grassfields of Cameroon since the early 20th century. The result was the development of a bead art based around cowries and pearls. But also local plant elements such as dried wild beans, dried raffia fruit hulls and reed seeds.

The Amazons, who work pearls in Bamiléké country, have made their own this meticulous art, an art of power which, until the 19th century, was practised in workshops run by men, in closed, secret places highly secured by the kings... They buy their pearls and cowries at the markets held in the villages of the region. Some of them get together to form associations or buying groups, in order to obtain supplies at good prices. They work in partnership with sculptors and basket-makers, to whom they send their orders for beading objects: terracotta heads (for beaded heads), statues, masks, stools, gourds, baskets, etc.

The beaded head of Africa and its manufacture

The Cameroon beaded head is made in the same way as all other beaded objects. It is based on a terracotta (baked clay) sculpture. The beader covers each object with an appropriate cloth. She uses needles and very fine threads to thread the beads and sew them delicately onto the fabric covering the object. She creates designs, colors and more or less abstract shapes. Gradually, an original artistic composition appears on the object, an expression of astonishing aesthetics.

In Cameroon, Bamileke kings and dignitaries are the clientele most interested in these highly prized masterpieces. Increasingly, tourists are taking a liking to these cultural products, which they acquire as souvenirs of their visit to Cameroon.

At major Bamiléké cultural events, the king, his ministers, his wives, village chiefs and their retinue are identifiable by their pomp. Objects decorated with beads are no exception: bracelets with ivory or glass bead motifs are proudly displayed; kings' seats feature compositions alternating beads and cowrie shells, depicting human or animal figures, or geometric shapes.

The African handicraft an economic boon

This art deeply rooted in culture is one reason why African beadwork and crafts are famous. They help keep traditional values alive while providing economic opportunities for the artisans.         
By selling their creations at markets or through online stores like Karioska (African handicraft store online), Etsy or eBay, ... these artisans are able to earn money from their work. All this while remaining faithful to traditions and passing on the knowledge of communities from generation to generation. This type of craft production not only gives them financial stability, but also the pride of helping to preserve their heritage. Something that might be lost to the widespread cultural changes brought about by globalization over time had this industry not existed.

A small number of mothers manage to make a decent living from the meagre income generated by reselling beaded objects and cowrie shells on local markets. Yet these women work patiently, in their kitchens, in their huts, when they return from the fields... Beading and cowrie shell-making have become an essential activity for them. With self-sacrifice, determination and sometimes resignation, they produce their work and store it in their stores. It's often several years later that they find takers.

Cultural diversity

Another reason why we should celebrate African beadwork is its ability to give us a glimpse of different cultures around Africa. Allowing us to explore different ways of life without having to leave our homes! Not only does this allow individuals to learn more about other societies, but it can help bridge gaps between countries that might otherwise remain isolated from each other due to political divisions between nations. Ultimately, this leads to a greater understanding of respect across borders than ever before possible! 

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