Current Exhibitions

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Ubuhle Women: Beadwork and the Art of Independence

The Ruth Funk Center for Textile Arts is pleased to present Ubuhle Women: Beadwork and the Art of Independence, a spectacular overview of a new form of bead art, the ndwango (“cloth”), developed by a community of women living and working together in rural KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. The plain black fabric that serves as a foundation for the Ubuhle women’s exquisite beadwork is reminiscent of the Xhosa headscarves and skirts that many of them wore growing up. By stretching this textile like a canvas, the artists use colored Czech glass beads to transform the flat cloth into a contemporary art form of remarkable visual depth. Using skills handed down through generations, and working in their own unique style “directly from the soul” (in the words of artist Ntombephi Ntobela), the women create abstract as well as figurative subjects for their ndwangos.

Ubuhle means “beauty” in the Xhosa and Zulu languages. It describes the shimmering quality of light on glass and its special spiritual significance for the Xhosa people. From a distance, each panel of the ndwango seems to present a continuous surface; but as the viewer moves closer and each tiny individual bead catches the light, the meticulous skill and labor that went into each work—the sheer scale of ambition—becomes stunningly apparent. A single panel can take more than 10 months to complete.

Ubuhle Women: Beadwork and the Art of Independence was developed by the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum, Washington, DC, in cooperation with Curators Bev Gibson, Ubuhle Beads, and James Green, and is organized for tour by International Arts & Artists, Washington, DC.  The local presentation of this exhibition is sponsored, in part, by Elizabeth “Becky” Price.  Select educational programs generously supported by the Bob and Jan Case Endowment for Student Enrichment.

Images: Zanele Muhloli, Portrait of Ntombephi Ntobela, April 2013. © Zanele Muhloli/Ubuhle Artists; Ntombephi “Induna” Ntobela, Tribute to My Sister Bongiswa, 2010, glass beads sewn onto fabric; Zanele Muhloli, Portrait of Zandile Ntobela, April 2013. © Zanele Muhloli/Ubuhle Artists.