Beadwork created by Shona, Zulu, Xhosa, and Ndebele women ranks as the strongest of more recent artistic traditions in southern Africa. Beads are used to make necklaces, headbands, bracelets, and leg ornaments, and to decorate aprons, loin covers, belts, and blankets. Beadwork patterns serve not only as decoration, but also as a means of communication, signaling the wearer’s rank, wealth, stage in life, or profession. Among the Thembu, a subgroup of the Xhosa, a girl who likes a boy will give him a headband. If he accepts, a relationship is established and other beaded gifts follow.
In earlier times, these groups made beads from materials found in nature, ranging from ordinary clay to more coveted shells of ostrich eggs. Arab slave traders brought the first glass beads to southern Africa. Portuguese traders in the 16th century brought beads from skilled artisans in Venice, Italy. Glass beads became more freely available after English colonists settled in Capetown in the 1780s.