These days they can be used to buy drinks and dinner at any Club Med. Once they were used to purchase real estate, namely the island of Manhattan. With us for the past 40,000 years, they are beads, first formed from animal teeth, bone, and stone, and later made of clay and glass. Aside from their sometime function as currency, the trinkets also have been symbols of wealth and power, instruments for recording history, religious articles to aid in prayer, and simple adornments.
The Yoruba culture of West Africa is serious about its baubles. For tribe members beadworking always has been a revered art form. According to Henry John Drewal, Evjue-Bascom professor of art history and Afro-American studies at the University of Wisconsin, evidence of a glass-bead industry among the Yoruba goes back to 900 A.D. and there are signs that the culture had beads made of other materials previous to that time. "For the Yoruba beads are regarded as a supreme symbol of preciousness, of value," he says. "They equate them with their other most precious possession: children. They have a saying: 'Beads are like children, and children are like beads. They need to be taken care of.'"
The sacred and secular ways the Yoruba cherished beads will be on display as part of Beads, Body, and Soul: Art and Light in the Yoruba Universe, opening Thursday at the Miami Art Museum. Organized by UCLA's Fowler Museum and cocurated by Drewal and scholar John Mason, the exhibition is the largest of its kind, featuring 150 works (masks, crowns, paintings, sculpture, divination elements, and more) ranging from ancient to contemporary objects. Drewal, who has performed extensive fieldwork in Yorubaland, was in charge of collecting the pieces from West Africa and Brazil. Mason, founder and director of the Yoruba Theological Archministry in New York and a specialist in the Yoruba diaspora in the United States and Cuba, concentrated on assembling works from the Americas. The two experts will deliver a lecture at Thursday's opening.
They'll talk about the beguiling beads, of course, but they also hope to clear up any confusion the public may have about things African. "One of the key misconceptions is that African culture is primitive and that African art is primitive art," Drewal says. "That term as we generally use it is very pejorative. It totally distorts the ancient rich, visual traditions of Africa." Drewal also notes that people often misconstrue African art as a nonintellectual form of expression. "It has a very deep basis in philosophical belief and religious thought and practice," he says, "and that's one of the things we've tried to present." For instance, he explains, colors are vital to the Yoruba, who associate certain hues with attributes of rulers or deities to reflect their personalities and character.
"There's a lot of layers of meaning," says Drewal about the ravishing works highlighted in the exhibition. "The [pieces] are wonderful to look at, but they're also great to think with!"
Beads, Body, and Soul: Art and Light in the Yoruba Universe opens Thursday, June 24, at 6:00 p.m. at the Miami Art Museum, 101 W Flagler St. Cocurators Henry John Drewal and John Mason lecture at 6:30 p.m. The show runs through August 29. Admission to the opening is free for members; $10 for nonmembers. Regular museum admission is $5. Call 305-375-3000.