The brightly colored mural hanging in the lobby of the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library, part of a traveling exhibit opening today, took museum staff much of a day to hang — the scene of a crucifix, worshippers, wildlife, sky and landscape is 23 feet wide and 14 feet high, and every inch is covered with tiny glass beads, painstakingly stitched onto fabric.
“Someone worked out how many beads that piece used once, and it was millions,” said Bev Gibson, co-creator of Ubuhle, the South African artists collective that created the work.
The beads, which the artists import from the Czech Republic, shimmer in the light. Their iridescence inspired the collective’s name — ubuhle means beauty in Xhosa, the first language of many of the artists.
Gibson and bead artist Ntombephi Ntobela started Ubuhle around 1999. It began with the idea of creating an income generation project for local women in their South African community and quickly grew into something much more. Ntobela learned the art of beading from her grandmother and trained other women in beadwork, garnering the nickname Induna, a title of respect for a community leader. She moved on from making jewelry and embroidering beads onto the borders of linens to creating much larger, more elaborate pieces. Those evolved into the intricately beaded murals, known as ndwango, that hang in museums today. One ndwango can take anywhere from a month to a year to complete, depending on the artist and the complexity of the scene.
“It started simply,” Gibson said. “But Induna is amazing. She’s incredibly proud of her work and beading.”
The art started to gain recognition locally, and then the Smithsonian saw it and commissioned an exhibit. That was vital in shifting the perspective of what the women were creating, Gibson said, helping label their work “art” rather than “craft.”
“Traditionally, people have struggled to see beading or clothwork as art, to see anything other than paint or sculpture as art, really. But people will pay more for art, because it is seen as having value beyond the piece,” Gibson said. “People will not pay enough for craft to make a living wage from it. But the Smithsonian recognized each woman had a distinct style, with distinct color palettes and expressions.”
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Gibson said she hopes the work Ubuhle’s artists are doing helps shift conversations and bring recognition to traditional art forms around the world.
“It has inspired other communities to look at traditional skills,” Gibson said. “We hope people are inspired to not bring in a Western understanding of art and impose it on artists.”
The museum exhibit, “Ubuhle Women: Beadwork and the Art of Independence,” has traveled the country and internationally, and will be in Cedar Rapids through Sept. 17. Gibson traveled to Iowa for the opening today and will lead a behind-the-scenes talk at 1 p.m. Along with Ntobela’s work, artists featured in the exhibit include Thando Ntobela, Zandile Ntobela, Zondlile Zondo, as well as the late artists Bongiswa Ntobela and Thembani Ntobela.
The Czech connection to South African beadwork started centuries ago, when early European explorers took beads with them to Southern Africa to trade. Czech glass houses have been producing beads since at least the 16th century, and glass beads slowly replaced the seeds previously used in South African beading. Gibson said the Ubuhle artists prefer using Czech beads over those from other countries for their high quality and consistency of color and size.
Museum curator Stefanie Kohn said the exhibit is a good chance to illustrate how far-reaching the impact of Czech glasswork has been.
“We have so much cool stuff in our collection that is beaded, and this is totally different. There’s a Czech bead connection across the world,” she said.
“We aren’t primarily an art museum, we’re primarily a history and culture museum, but it’s really nice to bring in art. And it’s nice to be branching out and doing something cross-cultural.”
• What: Ubuhle Women: Beadwork and the Art of Independence
• When: Opens May 12 and runs to Sept. 17
• Where: National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library, 1400 Inspiration Pl. SW, Cedar Rapids
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• Exhibit opening and behind-the-scenes talk with Ubuhle Women co-creator Bev Gibson: Cash bar and refreshments 1 p.m. today; talk 2 p.m. today, RSVP required; trunk show featuring jewelry and wall art by Ubuhle artists in the museum store throughout the exhibition. RSVP: (319) 362-8500 or ncsml.org/event/ubuhle-women-exhibit-opening.
l Comments: (319) 398-8339; firstname.lastname@example.org