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A social and cultural theoretical appraisal and contextualisation of the visual and symbolic language of beadwork and dress from southern KwaZulu-Natal, held in the Campbell Collections, UKZN.

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This Doctoral dissertation, A social and cultural theoretical appraisal and contextualisation of the visual and symbolic language of beadwork and dress from southern KwaZulu-Natal, held in the Campbell Collections ,University of KwaZulu-Natal seeks to act as a review and contextualisation of existing holdings of beadwork and dress to be found in the Campbell Collections of the University of KwaZulu-Natal. Most of the material referenced in this thesis was collected by the author in the post of Senior Museologist for these museum collections, but remain true to the eclectic, Africana and Oral History orientated collecting-policies of the founder, the late Dr Killie Campbell who’s ideas were no doubt equally informed by the Modernist, Colonialist notions of her times. Her collections were also heavily influenced by her friend and protégé, the artist Barbara Tyrrell, who recorded indigenous African dress according to the categories of gender age-grade/status and profession, noting within each category the correct posture, gesture and name of sitter/poser in some 1200 in-situ field-sketches of indigenous peoples of southern Africa. However, museum collecting is neither static nor neutral and as Campbell’s museum and library holdings had been bequeathed to the University of Natal (later KwaZulu-Natal), further collecting-policies were to be influenced by prevailing theories and schools of thought within the university disciplines most affecting the Collections at that time, namely Social Anthropology and History. The first of these schools excluded ‘material culture’ as being an art form (and at the time designated as a ‘craft’), as it concentrated instead on social and kinship organization( as did the British and French Schools versions of this school adopted by the English speaking University of Natal). ‘Material culture’ was the domain of Cultural Anthropology of the American and German Schools, which had been adopted by the Afrikaans speaking universities in South Africa. This fact side-lined the museum holdings of the Campbell Collections as a relevant source of study material for the University’s students as it not only delegated the material cultural artefacts to the status of ‘popular’ and ‘tourist-art’, but they were also an echo of the ruling apartheid Nationalist Government’s attempts to subvert the topic of indigenous culture to its own ends of divide and rule. Only the library division of the Campbell Collections assumed a more academic profile as it fell under the auspices of the discipline of History. The introduction of Orality-Literacy under the Faculty of European Languages and the introduction of a component of African art into the History of Art course at UKZN during the 1980s could be said to have redeemed material culture by contributing a new perspective upon it. The acquisition and sale of ‘authentic’ items of African art via western ‘Tribal-Arts’ sales-houses tends to de-emphasise the cultural function of these items for aesthetic considerations, a disingenuous mode of forcing up investment values. Only the academic writings of such art-historians as Anitra Nettleton, Sandra Klopper, Juliette Leeb-du-Toit, Thenjiwe Magwaza and Frank Jolles among others can counter this trend. This because they so often reference the Orality-Literacy theory of Walter Ong and the Symbolic Interactionist, Interpretivist and hermeneutical orientations in anthropological thought pioneered by people such as Clifford Geertz, famous for his introduction of the term ‘thick description’. These above mentioned schools of thought are the ones privileged in this thesis. From Geertz’s viewpoint I argue that instead of presupposing, as is the usual 1980-90s stance on beadwork that any suggestion of meaning, communication or message stems merely from the wish of African sellers of these crafts to appeal to European tourists/buyers with romantic notions of the ‘mythic African other’, rather these items may well still contain messages and communications that can only be understood by reference to the culture that produced them. Traditionalist women beadworkers, following ‘ukuhlonipha kolwimi’ (respect of language) encode messages into the non-verbal art of beadworking. In this they express themselves via regional colour and motif conventions that reference the formerly oral isiZulu language of the praise-poets, with its metaphor, alliteration and innuendo. In these items design and meaning unite to reflect the beadworkers/wearers’ concerns and act to not only circumscribe their identities according to gender/status/age-group that accompany important rites-of-passage like engagement, marriage, birth(ing) and death (and mourning),but also allow for the woman to express her expectations and disappointments, thus giving her a ‘voice’ albeit a non-verbal one. The regional location concentrated upon in this study is that of both the Embo-Mkhize and their Zulu neighbours’ resident in the KwaZulu-Natal midlands and the Bhaca and related Nhlangwini peoples of southern KwaZulu-Natal and East-Griqualand. The period covered is the 1950s to the 1990s, a time which largely parallels that when the administration of the Collections both passed to the University and continued to be administered by it. The majority of the items of beadwork and dress analysed in this study had actually been worn by their makers. They were obtained on field-collecting trips by museum staff during the 1980s–1990s, initially mainly by the author. Later on items were obtained increasingly more from African isiZulu speaking field collectors. Where possible in this thesis the original language of the maker-wearers, along with their explanations as to the meaning attributed to these items, has been retained and English translations provided accordingly, thereby allowing for a much clearer understanding of the connection between the rich idiomatic phraseology, often regional in its variations, and the symbolic choice of colour, motif and pattern and their intended communication. Not all beadwork and dress necessarily carries messages, but nearly all allow for ornamentation in its role of respecting and honouring (ukuhlonipha) both the ritual participants and wearers themselves as well as their viewers/witnesses (both those living and those deceased as in the case of the all-important amadlozi or ancestral-spirits). Concerns of African Feminism, modernisation and change are addressed throughout the study which has been divided into six chapters: Chapter 1 is an Introduction which gives a background to the topic, issues involved, literature and methodology. Chapter 2 is an intensive discussion of pertinent views and schools of thought (both Modernist and Postmodernist) that pertain especially to art and aesthetics, orality-literacy, anthropology (especially Interpretivism and Symbolic Interactionism) and museology, all of which are apposite to the selection of the beadwork and dress holdings under consideration. In Chapter 3 there is a discussion of the phenomenon of Nguni age-grades for both male and female and the ritual dimensions of courting which relate to the cultural significance of beadwork and dress in their function as external markers of such status and self-image. I also discuss manifestations of modernisation in relation thereto. Chapter 4 is an intensive overview of female engagement and marriage beadwork and dress and how these relate to concepts of the role of women in Nguni culture and integral to the many and various rituals of engagement and marriage that indicate these culturally important rites-of-passage. Examples of the ever-present modernisation and adaptation are also discussed. Chapter 5 examines the museum held documented beadwork communications of the women makers (in isiZulu, if available, with English translations) in the light of the cultural overview of the previous chapter. These communications involve the makers’ concepts of self, expectations, disappointments, conformity and attitudes to polygamy and awareness of modernisation and culture change. Chapter 6 is the Conclusion which summarises the thesis as a whole and suggests possible areas needing further research, particularly in field recordings of life-histories and the collecting of supporting documentation where available. The Bibliographic References follow and the thesis is supported by images placed in Appendices and marked by Chapter numbers and then Figure numbers, referenced accordingly within the chapters’ text.


Ph. D. University of KwaZulu-Natal, Pietermaritzburg 2015.


Killie Campbell Africana Library., Beadwork--South Africa--KwaZulu-Natal., Zulu (African people)--Art., Zulu (African people)--Pictorial works., Symbolism of colors--South Africa--KwaZulu-Natal., Zulu (African people)--Clothing., Theses--Art history.