Ubuhle Women: Beadwork and the Art of Independence Opens at the Sordoni Art Gallery on March 1

by Kelly Clisham
By artist Bongiswa Ntobela, Funky Bull, 2006. Glass beads sewn onto fabric.

This traveling exhibition of stunning bead art from South Africa tells a luminous story of independence, migration and memory.

Ubuhle Women: Beadwork and the Art of Independence will open at the Sordoni Art Gallery on March 1, and run through May 10. This spectacular overview of a new form of bead art, the ndwango (cloth), was developed by women with a shared vision working together in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. 

The plain black fabric that serves as a foundation for the Ubuhle women’s exquisite beadwork is reminiscent of the Xhosa headscarves and skirts that many of them wore growing up. By stretching this textile like a canvas, the artists use colored Czech glass beads to transform the flat cloth into a contemporary art form of remarkable visual depth. Using skills handed down through generations and working in their own unique style “directly from the soul” (in the words of artist Ntombephi Ntobela), the women create abstract as well as figurative subjects for their ndwangos

Ubuhle means “beauty” in the Xhosa and Zulu languages and well describes the shimmering quality of light on glass that, for the Xhosa people, has a special spiritual significance. From a distance, each panel of the ndwango seems to present a continuous surface. As the viewer moves closer and each tiny individual bead catches the light, the viewer becomes aware of the meticulous skill that goes into each artwork and the scale of the artist’s creative ambition. A single panel can take more than a year to complete, depending on size, complexity of the design and the size of beads used.

Migration has defined the history of modern South Africa. The late-19th-century discovery of gold and diamonds—and, to a lesser extent, the cultivation of sugar cane—transfigured South African society with its demands for a large, flexible workforce of able men.

In KwaZulu-Natal, the cane-cutting workforce was initially made up of indentured laborers from the Indian subcontinent, but from the late 19th century onwards, Xhosa migrant laborers began to replace those workers. Seasonal migration adversely impacted on family life and traditional values. There was no employment for women. This resulted in a breakdown of family life and of traditional values.

Bev Gibson and Ntombephi Ntobela created Ubuhle in response to this situation. Ubuhle was established in 1999 on a sugar plantation north of Durban in KwaZulu-Natal, when Ntombephi Ntobela [Induna] and Bev Gibson became friends and shared a vision of combining skills to a create a platform for women, denied a western education, that could reach national and international markets.

Since 2006, five artists have passed away. Many of the artworks thus function as memorials to family members and friends who have lost their lives. Remembering the dead is a key motivation for the creation of many of these artworks, and it imbues them with a spiritual significance.

Due to the slow, meticulous process of creating a ndwango, the act of beading itself becomes a form of therapy: a way of setting down the issues that are closest to the artists’ hearts; a way of grieving; and a place to encode feelings and memories. In a sense, through their presence in the artist’s thoughts during the act of creation, the deceased enter the very fabric of the work, 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.

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.

About the Co-Founders:

Ubuhle: Beautiful Beads exists today because of the determination of two women. Ntombephi Ntobela and Bev Gibson who co-founded Ubuhle in 1999. Ntobela is a master beader from the Eastern Cape whose tremendous skills, as an artist, a teacher, and a leader are the foundation blocks of Ubuhle: Beautiful Beads. She is known as Induna, meaning leader.

Gibson has a formal academic education and has used her skills to enable the artist to access the international art world as well as create the space for the artists to explore, experiment and develop this traditional art form. She has also been a source of energy and persistence behind the emergence of Ubuhle’s growing vision. 

Both women bring different skills to the recognition of the ndwango as a contemporary art form, and it is thanks to both that these works exist at all. Since 1999, Ntobela has taught Gibson to bead, and in return, Ntobela has gained literacy skills.

Sordoni Art Gallery Hours:

Ubuhle Women: Beadwork and the Art of Independence runs from Friday, March 1, through Friday, May 10.  The gallery is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and noon to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. 

Viewings will be by appointment only during spring break, March 1-10. To schedule an appointment, email melissa.carestia@wilkes.edu or call 570-408-5815. The gallery is closed on Mondays and during the spring holiday, March 28-31.

For more information, visit wilkes.edu/sordoniartgallery.

Schedule of Events

Second Saturday Family Hour: Animals as Symbols
Saturday,  March 9 | Noon to 2 p.m.

Attendees will explore animals as symbols in this Second Saturday Family Hour. Bulls represent wealth and are very important to the Xhosa and Zulu cultures in South Africa, where the Ubuhle women come from. Guests will design their own animal keychain using beads.

Storytime with the Osterhout Free Library starts at 1 p.m.

South African Lunch + Art in Your Hands Workshop 
Thursday, March 21 | 11 a.m. 
Registration required

Inspiration unfolds over an African-inspired lunch at the Sordoni Gallery, presented in partnership with the Office of Global Engagement. Guided by Bev Gibson, guests will make their own beadwork artwork inspired by the art in the gallery. Guests will have the opportunity to browse a pop-up shop of artists’ jewelry, artwork and merchandise from South Africa. Space is limited. For lunch and/or the bead workshop, register with melissa.carestia@wilkes.edu

Cocktails & Culture
Thursday, March 21 | 5: 30 p.m. 
Registration required | $30 admission; $25 for gallery members

In celebration of Ubuhle Women, guests are invited to an evening of specialty cocktails, African-inspired cuisine and an inside look at the current exhibition with curator Bev Gibson, as well as a pop-up shop of handmade beadwork from exhibit artists. Tickets are available at the Eventbrite link at wilkes.edu/sordoniartgallery

Art in Your Hands Family Workshop
Saturday, March 23 | Noon to 2 p.m. 
Registration required

Children and their families will create their own one-of-a-kind Ubuhle bug brooch and learn about animal symbolism guided by curator Bev Gibson. Guests will have the opportunity to browse a pop-up shop of artists’ jewelry, artwork and merchandise from South Africa. Space is limited. To register, email melissa.carestia@wilkes.edu

Ubuhle Brunch
Sunday, March 24 | 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Registration required 

Guests will enjoy an artful brunch and a casual tour of the gallery’s current exhibition. Guests will have the opportunity to browse one of the last days of the Ubuhle pop-up shop of handmade beadwork from artists in the exhibition.

Art in Context | Women’s History Month Lecture by Bev Gibson
Monday, March 25 | 4:45 p.m. 

Looking at the recent change in art world dynamics surrounding contemporary artists from Africa, exhibition curator Bev Gibson will discuss traditional techniques and the difference in perception between now and 10 years ago. Gibson will outline how the artists of Ubuhle now are revered by museums, art collectors and academic institutions. 

Guests will also have the opportunity to browse a pop-up shop of artists’ jewelry, artwork and merchandise from South Africa.

This Art in Context lecture is presented in partnership with the Council on Diversity, Inclusion and Equity.

Second Saturday Family Hour: Fused Bead Art 
Saturday, April 13 | Noon to 2 p.m.  

For this Second Saturday, guests will put a new spin on the ancient tradition of beading through the creation of their own coaster and magnet inspired by Ubuhle Women: Beadwork and the Art of Independence

Storytime with the Osterhout Free Library starts at 1 p.m.

Second Saturday Family Hour: May Mosaics
Saturday, May 11 | Noon to 2 p.m.

A mosaic is a piece of art that is made of smaller pieces, like stones or small pieces of paper. The gallery display of art made by the Ubuhle women features  a kind of mosaic made up of thousands of colored glass beads. Attendees will create their own clay mosaics and mosaic sun-catchers inspired by Ubuhle Women: Beadwork and the Art of Independence.

Storytime with the Osterhout Free Library starts at 1 p.m.

For more information, visit wilkes.edu/sordoniartgallery.

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