Flirting with Beads in a New Exhibition; an Exhibition of African Beadwork on Show in Gateshead Pulls Together Creative Strands of a Partnership Linking Thousands of Miles. BARBARA HODGSON Casts an Admiring Eye over the Result

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WHEN I arrive at the Shipley Art Gallery, heavy beaded collars are already on display while other multi-coloured body adornments are being carefully unpacked from a variety of boxes.

Emma Taggart and Simphiwe Nama from the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan Art Museum in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, are busy with the installation of the Gateshead gallery's latest exhibition.

Journeys in Beadwork: Culture and Tradition in the Eastern Cape - now on show in its full glory - is one of two new exhibitions showcasing African beadwork, both traditional and contemporary-style.

While Shipley staff in the adjacent gallery are sorting out fabulous beaded dresses - latest catwalk designs - for the second display, Emma explains that their assortment of 100 items - collars, chest pieces, anklets, bracelets and decorated clothing - is being shown in the United Kingdom for the first time, thanks to an ongoing deal with Tyne & Wear Museums.

"Our municipality (the museums of Nelson Mandela Bay Municipality) entered into a partnership," says the exhibitions officer.

"There are a lot of similarities between the North East of England and the Eastern Cape of Africa, and a similarity in the collections between Nelson Mandela Metropolitan Art Museum and Shipley."

While the Gateshead gallery boasts a fine art collection, it has established itself over recent years as a national centre for contemporary craft - ceramics, wood, metal, glass, textiles and furniture, making up one of the best collections outside London. NMMAM's focus is on contemporary art: it has a big ceramics collection and proudly features beadwork, the history of the traditional craft and its place in today's society.

Port Elizabeth is an industrial town, drawing together the traditions of the surrounding rural area of the Cape. This beadwork is mainly the work of the Mfengu tribe.

Women make the pieces for the men to wear, perhaps "flirting" as a teenager by offering a small item as a gift or, as a new bride, making a complete set of beadwork for her husband.

It's about displaying showmanship, pride, even fashion. Emma is keen for us to enjoy the items' beauty as much as appreciate their cultural value. "For beaders, the work is an expression of love and it's about self-expression.

"It might be a gift, part of courtship. You'd keep these pieces from your teenage years.

"The more beadwork a guy has, the more it shows he's loved."

The colours chosen are meaningful too. White beads represent spirituality, a single strand can mean transition, perhaps the life of its wearer being in a state of flux, blue signifies purity.

It's about group identity too. Pearlised buttons, for instance, are a regular feature in the Mfengu people's intricate exhibits.

Beadwork is traditionally worn during rituals, "like a party outfit". …


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