x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Beadwork zebra

Object of desire Beadwork has been given a design tweak to increase their appeal to contemporary buyers without losing its unique African-ness.

Handmade South African beadwork zebra. Etcetera, Dubai.
Handmade South African beadwork zebra. Etcetera, Dubai.

Now that the world has returned to normal after a month of football frenzy, let's not forget South Africa - and, especially, let's celebrate its amazing tradition of handcrafts. Beadwork has been a southern African tradition for centuries, in the past being reserved to create insignia for tribal royalty only, with Xhosa, Zulu and Ndebele, and their various sub-tribes, each developing a distinctive style. Made by women (but worn by men as well), the intricate pieces took countless hours of painstaking work.

The time and attention to detail required for handmade pieces such as this zebra has not changed (at a metre high, it comprises tens of thousands of tiny seed beads, hand-threaded one by one onto fine wires, before taking form over a "skeleton" of galvanised steel fencing wire). What has changed is the circumstances of their making. Under apartheid, when the tribes were moved into townships, the resulting poverty prompted people to turn their handcraft skills to making toys and household items from rubbish and found materials. Hence, beadwork came to be done on wire, rather than the grass thread of old, allowing for more adventurous three-dimensional forms.

Fast forward to recent years when these craft skills have been harnessed to provide income and empowerment to the township women - the styles in some cases given a design tweak to increase their appeal to contemporary buyers without losing their unique African-ness. I especially love this zebra for its whimsical humour (its face has real expression, as if it's about to give a cheeky wink), as well as its large scale. And it wins extra points for being a reminder of the heart-stopping and humbling beauty of Africa's plains.

Handmade South African beadwork zebra - unique piece Dh1,750 (similar pieces can be made to order). Etcetera, Villa 30 Beach Road, Jumeirah 1, Dubai, 04 344 8868, www.etceteraliving.com