Essay by Dr. Christa Clark
This five-paneled garment is known as an ijogolo, a bridal apron worn by Ndebele women. Upon marriage, the groom’s family traditionally gave the bride a plain leather or canvas apron with five flaps. The newly married Ndebele woman embroidered that apron, creating bold geometric designs with imported glass beads. She would wear this apron on important ceremonial occasions to signify her married status. The multiple panels, referred to as “calves,” symbolize the future children the woman will bear.
Throughout southern Africa, peoples wear beaded garments that comment upon their stage in life and convey aspects of their individual identity. Different types of beaded artifacts may communicate social and marital status, number of children, and a person’s home region or ethnicity.
Although the historical origins of southern African beadwork are uncertain, it is known that glass beads from Europe were available in the area as early as the sixteenth century through trade with the Portuguese. During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the region became the world’s largest consumer of glass beads. Dating beaded works is difficult, although the color and size of the beads, the patterns and motifs, and the material used can all provide some indication of age. Older works typically have leather backings and use mostly small, white beads with minimal color designs, as in this example.
© 2006 The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (by permission)