by Michelle Assaad
To the approximately 8 million Yoruba people living throughout Nigeria and Benin in West Africa who practice their traditional religion, beads are an integral part of their every day lives. Yoruba beadwork is considered to be among the most intricate and complex of the world, and within the images is a history and unexpected explanation for the way the individual beads are. For the Yoruba people beads are not only used to decorate ceremonial items such as headpieces, necklaces, drum aprons and sheaths, but also used to for spiritual purposes, by those who know how to hone them properly such as priests and diviners. In their article, “Beads, Body and Soul: Art and Light in the Yoruba Universe”, authors Henry Drewal and John Mason state that beads are associated with “temperament, empowerment, protection, potentiality, desire, wealth and well being” (Drewal, Henry and Mason, John. “Beads, Body and Soul: Art and Light in the Yoruba Universe. 1998. African Art). Understanding the meaning of the beads and the history of them is vital to appreciating the esthetic aspect of them.
There is evidence of Yoruba beadwork beginning from the 6th century, about 300 years before the beginning of mass glass bead importation from Europe (Stokes, Debora. “Beads, Body and Soul: Art and Light in the Yoruba Universe: UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural history, Los Angeles, California”. 1998. African Arts). Yet evidence has shown that glass beads were used as a status symbol since at least 800 CE and were used as cowries and as economic exchange (Ogundiran, Akinwumi. “Of Small Things Remembered: Beads, Cowries, And Cultural Translations Of The Atlantic Experience In Yorubaland.” 2002. International Journal Of African Historical Studies). Before the European beans began flooding African markets to trade for ivory and gold and even now, Yoruba people made their beads using recycled glass and staining it to the desired color and stones were also used (Stokes, 1998, African Arts). In addition, author Patricia Jacobs says in her article, “Beads, Body and Soul”, that they also used coral, which they believe is provided by their protector, the goddess of the sea, who also provides the materials which they make their glass beads (Jacobs, Patricia. “Beads, Body and Soul”. 2001. Fineart). This coral is so important that most royal Yoruba women have an ode to coral in their names (Drewal and Mason. 1998. African Arts).
As decorative items, beads carry heavy symbolism. Everything from the colors to the shapes formed has meaning and purposeful calculations and design. Even the combination of the colors carries its own mathematical equation (Mason, 1998, African Arts). The colors, for one, are an integral part of the personality of the pieces and the portrayal of the orisha, or divinity, which they are attempting to portray. In the Yoruba culture, colors are not categorized based off of shade but rather based off of the warmth that they give off (Drewal, Mason. 1998. African Art). Jacobs also, says that the colors used by the Yoruba people fall into three different main categories: funfun, which is associated with cold and includes colors such as silver, white and gray; pupa which is associated with warmth and includes colors such as red, orange and pink; dudu is associated with the extremes of warmth and cold and includes colors such as black, dark brown and purple (Jacobs, 2001, Fineart). John Mason, author of the article “Yoruba Beadwork in the Americas: Orisa and Bead Color”, also states that black also symbolizes the “unchartered region away from the protective wall of civilization and warmth of the family hearth,” which is why the meal of black beans was made so popular in the Americas such as USA, Cuba and Brazil, where the Yoruba people took their beliefs and religion as they crossed the Middle Passage (Mason, John. “Yoruba Beadwork in the Americas: Orisa and Bead Color”. 1998. African Arts). Stokes claims that the color palate can also determine the level of colonial impact on the Yoruba people: the darker the colors, the truer they are to the people, whereas the lighter pastel colors show a high level of colonial impact (Stokes, 1998, African Arts).
Mason gives an example of how the bead colors and type portray a specific orisha, in this case Ogun, the god of iron and war. When his necklace is worn it predominately contains black and green with a splattering of red “to symbolize blood and his explosive nature. Green reminds us that Ogun is the chief of hunters and is senior to his brothers and fellow hunters” (Mason, 1998, African Arts). This color formula can be used to determine the nature of the divinity being portrayed without any remaining doubt. In addition, the careful balancing of the colors “depict balance and restraint” on the part of the orisha, which are reached through the beads which act as an “ambassador of heaven” and serve the purpose of uniting heaven and earth (Jacobs. 2001. Fineart). Drewal and Mason also state “Coloring and covering the body in beads is healing and empowering. Colorful beads are medicines that act on worldly and otherworldly forces” (Drewal and Mason. 1998. African Arts).
In addition to the symbolism of the bead colors, shape and design plays a major role in the meaning, history and power of the beadwork. Each design communicates, “the infinity of forces spiritually and worldly” (Jacobs, 2001, Fineart). The simple act of creating the beadwork is considered a sacred one because the concentration required and the repetition places the artist in a trance like state that further heightens the spiritual value of the beadwork and enmesh the beads with “power, desire and well-being” (Jacobs, 2001, Fineart). This is so much so that in cases where the embroiderer has become stuck on their design, they make a sacrifice to their orisha and the orisha gives them the vision of how the final beadwork will look in return (Thompson, Robert Farris. “Sign of the Devine King: An Essay On Yoruba Bead-Embroidered Crowns With Veil and Bird Decorations”. 1970. African Arts).Drewal and Mason state that the art of threading the beads together in their design signify “unity, togetherness and solidarity” that stand for generations of family (Drewal, 1998, African Arts).
The designs of Yoruba beadwork can range anywhere from geometric shapes to animals to the faces of their ancestors. These patterns can be used on all sorts of ceremonial items such as: the King’s crowns, sword sheaths, drum aprons, chairs and masks, all of which are designed to please their particular orisha. It has been noted that there has been foreign influence in the beads as in with the color palate of the glass beads. Christian crosses and Muslim amulets have shown the influence of colonialism and foreign religions” (Jacobs, 2001, Fineart).
To appreciate the beadwork of the Yoruba people, which has played such a vital role in their history, their present and will most certainly continue to do so, it is vital to know the meaning behind the colors and designs. Once one knows the meaning behind the vibrant colors and pattern of the beads, suddenly the work seems so much more spiritual and meaningful than it did before.
Drewal, Henry John, and John Mason. “Beads, Body, And Soul: Art And Light In The Yorùbá Universe.” African Arts 31.(1998): 18-35. Art Full Text (H.W. Wilson). Web. 10 Feb. 2013.
Drewal, Henry John, and John Mason. “Beads, Body, And Soul.” African Arts 31.1 (1998): 18. Academic Search Premier. Web. 10 Feb. 2013.
Jacobs, Patricia. “Beads, Body, And Soul.” Fiberarts 27.5 (2001): 46-49. Art Full Text (H.W. Wilson). Web. 10 Feb. 2013.
Ogundiran, Akinwumi. “Of Small Things Remembered: Beads, Cowries, And Cultural Translations Of The Atlantic Experience In Yorubaland.” International Journal Of African Historical Studies 35.2/3 (2002): 427-457. OmniFile Full Text Mega (H.W. Wilson). Web. 10 Feb. 2013.
Stokes, Deborah. “Beads, Body, And Soul: Art And Light In The Yoruba Universe: UCLA Fowler Museum Of Cultural History, Los Angeles, California.” African Arts 31.4 (1998): 78-80. Art Full Text (H.W. Wilson). Web. 10 Feb. 2013.
Thompson, Robert Farris. “The Sign Of The Divine King: An Essay On Yoruba Bead-Embroidered Crowns With Veil And Bird Decorations.” African Arts 3 (1970): 8. JSTOR Arts & Sciences VII. Web. 10 Feb. 2013.