Smithsonian Museum Features Work of South Africans

Women of Mandela's Tribe Create Intricate Bead Art

Stacy M. Brown | 12/11/2013, 3 p.m.
The day apartheid finally ended in South Africa; many concluded that the seeds of the race-based oppression had been swept ...
"The African Crucifix," by Nontanga Manguthsane, Kalipha Ntobela, Sthembile Majola, Tshengi Duma, Ntombephi Ntobela, Thembani Ntobela, Nonhlakanipho Mndiyatha. (Photograph by Susana Raab, Anacostia Community Museum)

The day apartheid finally ended in South Africa; many concluded that the seeds of the race-based oppression had been swept away.

After all, a true democracy and the release from prison of freedom fighter Nelson Mandela provided hope that even women would finally receive a fair shake.

However, despite the gallant efforts and monumental gains made and created by the late Madiba, black women of South Africa still face challenges that left some questioning whether freedom applied to the fairer sex, who discovered that many disgruntled men often turned their rage on them and tasked females with brutal and hard labor.

“Black women haven’t had the best of lives, never have in South Africa,” said Bev Gibson, a white South Afrikaner who recently visited the Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum in Southeast.

“I’ve enjoyed a good life, but I never understood why our people oppressed black South Africans and their women,” said Gibson, the co-curator of the new exhibit, “Ubuhle Women: Beadwork and the Art of Independence,” which opened on Monday, Dec. 9 at the museum, located at 1901 Fort Place in Southeast.

"Fantasy," by Nonhlakanipho Mndiyatha (Photograph by Susana Raab, Anacostia Community Museum)

"Fantasy," by Nonhlakanipho Mndiyatha (Photograph by Susana Raab, Anacostia Community Museum)

The exhibit, which runs through September 2014, features 31 pieces that introduce American art aficionados to the “ndwango,” or the time-consuming and detailed bead art form that originated in South Africa.

The artists have transformed traditional beading techniques into a contemporary medium through which tiny colored glass beads, hand sewn, and intricate patterns on black cloth canvasses, served to create artwork based on their life struggles and experiences.

Given the death of Mandela on Dec. 5, the main gallery exhibition takes on added significance, said museum spokesperson, Marcia Baird Burris.

“A major part of the exhibition in the main gallery is the back story of the women artists and their journey to self-sufficiency against the backdrop of post-apartheid South Africa and the role of Gibson,” Baird Burris said.

Each of the women are from Mandela’s Xhosa tribe in Cape Town, said Gibson, 46, who established an artists’ community to assist the poor in South Africa called, “Ubuhle,” which means beautiful. The women of the community presented Mandela an “ndwango,” piece five years ago to commemorate his 90th birthday.

In 1999, Gibson transformed her sugar plantation near the city of Durban into an artists’ community as a means for local women to achieve financial independence.

Gibson, who met Mandela several years ago, along with her friend, Ntombephi Ntombela, crafted beadwork and sold it on the Durban beach front to tourists, passersby and others.

The pair eventually recognized the economic potential in creating beaded artwork, which led to the founding of the community to help struggling black South African women.

Sales of the work helped both women and children afflicted with HIV/AIDS and Gibson said her venture expanded through word-of-mouth. She’s trained more women to master the art of beadwork over the years.

“The objective is to create a family environment for the beaders and their children. This extends to the family’s children who have been orphaned,” said Gibson, whose generosity has afforded countless black women and children a better quality of life.