History

“A world of beads”

Beads are among the oldest and most beautiful craftsmanship we find, dating thousands of years back in human history. They represent fare more than just personal adornment. Beads have been used worldwide in countless ways, as talismans in prehistoric and modern society, as status symbols in the ancient world and in Africa and Asia today, as religious articles in Buddhist, Christian and Islamic faiths, and as a medium of trading at all times . Each bead contains cultural information and a fascinating story about its origins, what materials it is made of, its production location and which technique that is used in production. Moreover; it often says something about the user’s status in society, its travel through time and geography and definitely the potential of symbolism hidden in it.

Beads are and have been used as currency, and a few places in the world like the Solomon Islands in the Pacific, this is still the case. The slave trade in Africa, the fur trade in Canada, precious metals in South America and large areas of land in North America; everywhere Europeans as well as other traders travelled to enrich themselves valuable goods against glass beads. But even before the Europeans’ imperialism started, the glass beads have been used as commodity. From ancient Egypt it is well known that the rich and powerful decorated themselves with big collars made of gold and beads of different materials around the neck, which is also painted on the sarcophagus found in museums. And in societies where one had techniques for making glass beads, craftsmen made round shiny beads of everything from nuts, shells, animal teeth and horns. The finest examples always belonged to the most powerful in these communities and therefore had enormous significance. Also among indigenous people living a rather primitive and simple life, beads have been of great value and still are.

In modern society, much of the historical value and symbolism of the beads have been lost, as well as the unique techniques that were adopted to join them together in beautiful patterns on clothing and body jewellery. But within ethnic groups and indigenous peoples in the world it’s still possible to find the techniques and symbolism still alive. Hill Aina Steffenach, which for many years has worked with folk costumes and crafts both nationally and internationally, have travelled around to several groups and production sites to collected information and examples of the work which now constitutes the exhibition “A world of beads”. And to be able to make this happen she has been collaborating with so many wonderful people of different ethnic and cultural backgrounds, who came from societies where bead traditions is still strong and alive. Steffenach have previously set up several exhibitions and “A World of Beads” is by now the largest of them with hundreds of items from more than 30 countries.