ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The ultimate migrants, glass beads travel from the island of Murano in the Venetian Lagoon and the mountains of Bohemia to the American Plains, Africa, India and Latin America.
These inveterate travelers embellish clothing, cradles, dolls, hats, saddles, shoes and ceremonial items. They tell stories of faith, family, clans, puberty, weddings and social status. Beads luster and sparkle, calling attention to the one they adorn.
“Beadwork Adorns the World” opens at Santa Fe’s Museum of Inte rnational Folk Art on Friday, April 20, encompassing about 260 objects, multiple countries and tribes. Former MOIFA director Marsha Bol organized the exhibit around life stages, gender, social status, leadership, spirituality and festive occasions.
All cultures share the same life cycle from birth to death. All parents want to cradle their babies in decorative softness and warmth. All religions commemorate human hallmarks such as puberty, courtship, marriage and death.
Beadwork conveys culturally significant information about its members.
Most kings crave a crown, be they British or Nigerian.
Archaeologists discovered a blue and green faience bead-net dress in an Egyptian tomb in 1927, Bol said. Although time had disintegrated the threads, the beads and their impressions remained, allowing its reconstruction some 4,500 years later.
A Kuba king from the Congo once took two hours to don his beads-and-shell-adorned royal attire, Bol said. It weighed 285 pounds.
“He couldn’t wear it for more than an hour because it was so hot,” she said. “He only wore it about three times in his lifetime.”
Contemporary Lakota beadworker Thomas Haukaas learned his craft from his elders. His finely beaded pictorial cradles feature butterflies and birds. His “Economic Conundrum Cradle” (2010) is a sociopolitical allegory, its scattering birds reacting to the economic downturn. The birds look upward, even as their wings flutter madly. The base of the butterfly cradle reads, “The border crossed us.”
The inscription on the tanned hide of a precisely beaded violin case from the Brulé Lakota Rosebud Reservation, S.D., reads “Rubin Bass, Elk Falls, Feb. 1, 1891.”
“We know of two that were made,” Bol said. “They said, ‘If something stood still, (the Lakota) would bead it’.”
In Mexico, women wore “china poblana” skirts and blouses at fiestas and special occasions. Its origins shrouded in legend, it can only be traced back to the 19th century. Bright flowers, birds and leaves embellish a cotton blouse c. 1935.
Similar to a throne, a double-headed elephant stool covered in large tubular glass beads sat ready for the “fon” or king of Cameroon as he received dignitaries.
In Romania, glass beads intertwined with embroidery to adorn a festive man’s belt (1881-1921) made of cotton and leather. Glass beads were readily available from the Czech Republic.
Beadwork moved into high fashion with the flapper dresses of the ’20s, as well as Kiowa artist Teri Greeves’ “Sunboyz” hightops (2009) and her “NDN Girlz/Rez Girlz” (2009) heels.
Based in Santa Fe, Greeves took the beading tradition of her people and applied it to contemporary athletic footwear.
“We don’t know how far it goes back,” Bol said, “but I think the minute humans decided they wanted to adorn themselves, they started finding things in nature and began beading.”