Graffiti Art Free Palestine at UCT: Photo, Conversations, Artist

Increasingly in the 21st century, graffiti art is mainstream. We explore truths illuminated by the graffiti art Free Palestine at University of Cape Town


While the tactics – bombing,tagging –  remain rooted in the oft castigated methods of street art, the actors have changed. Since its birth such guerilla tactics have earned this form of expressionism its bad boy tag. However, in the 21st century graffiti art is getting mainstream. Mainstream you say? Well the truth is that one will be be hard pressed to find an oxymoron that tops that : mainstream graffiti art. Yet as this series on graffiti art in the 21st century will reveal, indeed this paradox that today lies at the heart of graffiti art continues to play itself out. Today’s important conversation is inspired by this piece of graffiti art Free Palestine at UCT

IMPORTANT CONVERSATIONS THAT THIS PIECE OF GRAFFITI ART, FREE PALESTINE, AT UCT INVITES THE GALLERY TO

  1. Palestinian struggle as an illegally occupied territory.
  2. Neocolonialism.
  3. The full spectrum of apartheid beyond race.
  4. Student activism in the 21st century.

WHERE IN THE WORLD IS THIS PIECE OF GRAFFITI ?

University of Cape Town (UCT), Western Cape, Cape Town, South Africa.

UCT frequently battles with flashpoints on restorative justice. The ethical dilemmas that the community of UCT faces are primarily centered on South African empathy for and comrade-in-arms stance to the Palestinian struggle.

Take the case of the Marikana shootings  of 16th August 2012, an event that to date remains etched in the conscience of South Africans. Recently, on the third anniversary of this dark day in South African history, the faceless graffiti bombing group Tolokos Stencil Collective claimed that UCT was implicit.  In a statement UCT sought to clarify

We encourage staff and students to attend the events on campus this week to commemorate Marikana and to engage in thoughtful debate, campaigns for greater accountability, analysis of the conditions that continue to deprive mineworkers and their families of appropriate living conditions, the new labour and trade union environment – while all along offering respect to those whose lives were lost. UCT condemns the use of vandalism as an irresponsible and inappropriate method of protest that shows no respect for the students and staff of the UCT community. While the university encourages and supports the responsible exercise of freedom of expression, we do not condone defacing buildings and memorials.

UCT
graffiti art - Free Palestine at UCT
Photographer – Boniface Mwangi. Approximate period of capture – May 2018.

ABOUT THE ARTIST BEHIND THE GRAFFITI ART FREE PALESTINE AT UCT

Possibly UCT PSF. If not, could it have been sanctioned by UCT administration as part of on-campus Israeli Apartheid Week celebrations? On its Facebook page, UCT Palestine Solidarity Platform describes itself as follows :

The UCT PSF believes that the Palestinian people must ultimately be able to decide their future in Palestine and that human rights and basic standards of justice are prerequisites to a just resolution of the plight of the Palestinians. We identify with the struggles of Palestinians within Israel, in the illegally Occupied Territories, and in the diaspora. As a South African student organization we are driven to engage in this struggle because of the parallels we see between South Africa’s history of discrimination and dispossession and the Israeli colonial Apartheid regime.

The UCT PSF has campaigned for an academic boycott of Israel setting UCT on the path to a seminal point in history as the first institute of higher learning, anywhere, to do so.

WHERE TO JOIN THE CONVERSATION SURROUNDING THIS PIECE OF GRAFFITI AT UCT

Anti apartheid advocacy groups like UCT PSF have labored to paint the academic boycotts as not being anti-Semitic. Their efforts are yet to bear fruit as at UCT, the decision on academic boycott remains stuck in bureaucracy.

Meanwhile, graffiti art remains the revolutionary act in South African universities, speaking where others are gagged or lost in bureaucratic dystopia. Against such a backdrop of institutionalized apartheid, the power of this piece of graffiti art free Palestine at UCT, is palpable.

For us, well meaning global citizens of the 21st century, we await to see if South African student activists will win this one. Will student activism triumph as it did with the Rhodes Must Fall movement? What about the spectrum of resistance from EFF? Or President Ramaphosa’s push for land repatriationwithout compensation? We must also think deeply about this brand of student activism by UCT PSF.

What does all this portend for the rainbow nation in the 21st century?

As with every resistance movement, the forces might:

  • Coalesce into a single force that later gets consumed with factionism.
  • Get consumed by factionism from the outset. Then with time and thanks to the working of the oppressor, each distinct group in turn gets being consumed with factionism and mistrust.

Most importantly though, Africa watches on as its big brother decolonizes. As we say in Africa, it takes a whole village to raise a child. Thus, will young people from other African nations add their voices to this nascent struggle? Will the South African struggle reignite student activism that’s on the death bed in places like Kenya? Crucially though, with the rise of Bobi Wines and Joseph Malemas of this world, is a ‘sub Saharan African’ spring in the air?

Graffiti Art In The 21st Century: The Bronx, 1990’s Nairobi, New York Subway,The White House

Why would some of us consider graffiti, art, while others vehemently opine that graffiti is nothing but vandalism? A personal story and a short history


Is there a link between religion and graffiti art? Why would some of us consider graffiti, art, while others vehemently opine that graffiti is nothing but vandalism? How do we tie all this up in understanding graffiti art’s place in 21st century society? To answer these questions we have to go back to 1990’s Nairobi, ‘New World’ America and into Obama’s and Trump’s White House.

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

Graffiti Art and Religion: How My Search For Christianity Fed My Love For Graffiti Art

Growing up in early 90’s Nairobi — right about the time evangelical Christianity was taking root in Kenya– meant that one had to at least sit through one Armageddon movie.

The ‘movies’ were short clips, not more than an hour, beamed by projector on white screen but preferably on shop walls. The sinema was timed perfectly: Starting just as evening gave way to night (just as one would serve desert) to wash down the  boisterous preaching and signing that had just gone down.

These public-address-system powered open air crusades were in every corner, open market field and roadside as startup churches going by such brand names like:’ The Devil Is A Liar Ministries’ fought for souls to convert.

Unapologetic expressionism

Not one to miss out on desert, I watched probably two hands counts of these ‘movies’. In fact I would hunt down the ‘showings’. I would read every one of the bland blue ink only posters plastered on electricity poles. Mentally note the days and using gained experience, plan to arrive at the right time. The sweet spot was a brief window when one is early enough to get a front row seat, but late enough to skip the loud, emphatic preaching.

You see, there was no You Tube – we had to contend with state TV only and VCR machines were high-end. Mostly though, it was because I craved more and more for that rare quality that these movies with no star names as actors; unoriginal gone-round-the-block scripts; dodgy sound and forgettable cinematography had in plenty: Shock value.

I am talking about unapologetic liberal expression of the contents/matters  of the soul in manner that with time – after being weaned on apocalyptic tales – I have come to rank only second to graffiti art.  If these apocalyptic movies and graffiti art had a persona, it would be one that entices, enthralls and still impudently instill fear.

Cultural Roots Of Graffiti Art In America- aka- the New World

Save for the forgotten indigenous tribes of the Americas, everyone emigrated there. Across the Atlantic,  the gallant souls from across Europe moved in search opportunity. Some were on the run from persecution in their homelands: religious, social, economic or otherwise.

These adventurous types migrated carrying their culture in their souls alongside their few belongings. On the contrary, others moved to America against their own will. Sold by their tribes men or traded as bounty from inter tribe wars. 12 years a slave begins only to tell their story of breaking backs and the severing their umbilical cords. They too, carried their culture in their hearts, minds and souls.

Even with great economy in words, graffiti art conveys thought provoking messages by utilising, color, imagery and placement to great effect. Here, what the graffiti artist puts as simply 'live life', the poet doesn't achive the same effect with a wordy: "Four great adventures: read,learn, write and travel"
What the graffiti artist says with two words (live life), the poet cannot achieve with eight (four great adventures: read, learn, write and travel) .

Melting pot of cultures

It’s a misnomer labeling the cradle of modern graffiti art, late 20th century inner city New York, a-cultural.  It beats logic how such a tag could suffice considering that the inner cities – Brooklyn and its sisters – were a melting point of cultures:  Hispanic, Afro-American , Afro-Caribbean, Caucasian and Asian.

Though these peoples may be long plucked from their roots; their different cultures remain alive hidden in words used in everyday talk; in idioms subtly hidden in language; stories passed from one generation to the next and I believe, hard-wired in genetic material active and alive.

This tapestry of cultures with a history full of oppression paints a picture of street art in my mind. I imagine a scene where graffiti art is an every day Joe. And just like you and me, it battles with the complexities of 21st century life. Broken, she has sought help at the shrink’s office. I chose therefore to be forgiving and desist from  judging and tagging.

Graffiti Art and vandalism: A  Multi-personality Disorder Best Depicted by The Parable” Which One Came First, The Or Chicken or The Egg “

It is said that all that is needed is a trigger to spur some action. Consider this statement the opposite of the proverb: “Let sleeping dogs lie”. Thus, quite often, the trigger that spurs action is some form of oppression. The nature of action almost always eventually mimics the nature of the trigger. Violence begets violence. Still, part of spectrum of release of oppression of groups also often takes the form of physically harmless creative expression.

Street Art is Expressionism

This reaction to events around the artist that is biased towards expression of feelings rather than physical objects is what gives graffiti art a standing as a form of expressionism.  True art is real and life mimics art. With graffiti art, these sayings could not be more apt. Graffiti art in all it’s glory however vile, was the face of inner city mid to late 20th century New York.

In 1965 as feminism was gaining ground with adoption of Executive Order 11375. This piece of legislation  expanded the affirmative action policy to cover gender based discrimination. Devoid of such assurances from society, a different crusade was incubating in sections of the American urbane. We will attempt to draw a portrait of this crusade in the subsequent sections.

Graffiti Art In The 20th Century: From The Grimy Streets Rose Something So Beautiful That Some Considered It Rude

The roots of modern graffiti art lie in a period of societal angst in mid to late 20th century. As intimated above, there was a distillation in world views into the expansion of civil rights. This by extension included agitation for women rights and the beginning of the end of colonialism in Africa.

In neighborhoods such as the inner cities of New York and Philadelphia, considered devoid of culture – thus bereft of a system to protect the individual from rapid change – the prevailing depraved social conditions must have only added to the angst.

This was because while humanity took care of everyone else, inner city youth felt forgotten and vulnerable. Something that graffiti art (Bombing particularly) and belonging to gangs respectively cured.

Given the complex way that societies evolve, it is hard to make out which of graffiti art and vandalism is the chicken or the egg. Yet despite all the bile from the purists, graffiti has always been at home with power.

Power & Graffiti

One only needs to step back into late 20th century battles for New York to find inner city gangs such as The Bronx River Project gangs (that socialized the likes of The Godfather aka  The Amen Ra of Hip Hop Kulture, gang leader turned peace maker Afrika Bambaataa,) who marked their territory using graffiti art.

Of the hustlers running 20th century New York City streets, Bambaataa stands heads above. His influence in defining Hip Hop culture, defining Rap, Djing, B-boying and graffiti art (Aerosol writin) is unmatched. Who would have envisioned that the hip hop culture will be the most successful of American exports ?

Worse, who would have dared say that one of Hip Hop’s four pillars would find a home in the highest office on earth? As a symbol of mutual respect between two of the most powerful men at the time in the 21st century?

We will delve into the juicy details of the story of graffiti and powerful men in the White House later. But first lets unpack graffiti as art, complete with stylistic elements.

Mainstreaming Of Graffiti Art: The Role Of Pioneer Graffiti Artists

The Hellenic American Union, Hellenic Folklore Research Center of The Academy Of Athens in a 2010 online poster advertising a talk by UNESCO research associate Nikos Papgeorgiou titled From Expressionism To Graffiti  offer :

Until 1912, art theorists were using the term Expressionism to describe Modern Art in Europe during that period. This term inspired many artists, as the movement began as a kind of revolution against Classic Art, in favor of a liberation of the soul. From Picasso, Gauguin and Matisse to contemporary artists who express themselves through multicolored and expressionist graffiti on the city’s walls, the distance is not great.

Graffiti art’s first victory was in 1973 when New York Magazine carried an 8 page essay on the underground subway graffiti movement. An expose which brought the names TAKI 183, JOE 182, PRAY  and STAY HIGH 149 from the train seats, walls, pavements, posts and train carriage bodies of New York to the world .

The legend STAY HIGH 149, was born Wayne Roberts in 1950,  as a young man he made ends meet working as a messenger in Wall Street following his family’s relocation from Emporia, VA to Harlem at age seven.

Legend goes that STAY HIGH 149 would tag his name on over 100 trains during his day job. He would tag another 200 trains when hitting the night shift. As remarkable as his feat was, STAY HIGH  was following in the footsteps of Philadelphia pioneers CORNBREAD and COOLEARL, who in the late sixties are credited with popularizing bombing.

Bombing & Tagging

Bombing involves writing  your name (tag) all over the city using can sprays and permanent makers – unlike in the Roman Empire where art works were produced by scratching a design into a surface.

Graffiti art falls within an iconographic tradition and style is the expression of that tradition

Lisa Gottlieb in Graffiti Art Styles: A Classification System and Theoretical Analysis

In New York, the interconnected subway system allowed for inter-borough competitions. Graffiti writers competed among themselves spurring development of this ‘delinquent ‘ art form through style wars. All this came at a great cost to the City Of New York. To rid the trains off the ‘vandalism’ they had to repeatedly repaint the trains.

Consequently, for the taggers, it was dangerous art. They frequently had run-ins with the law. To stay safe, they abandoned the initial tactic of riding the trains round the five boroughs. Instead, the writers would camp at the subway bombing trains with their tags as they stopped to pick passengers. Not to get caught, they had to be highly economical with words thus the eventual incorporation of imagery.

Graffiti Art In The 21st Century

To look at graffiti art through the narrow prism of ‘conservative’ constructs of “graffiti art is vandalism” would be denying ourselves insight. We would be shutting out the world. In effect denying how street art has come to capture aspects of the psyche of humanity. From as far back as cavemen, into the 21st Century .

From college students to presidents of world super powers. To gang members running the streets (some contend that, the difference between the last two is a matter of semantics); the power of graffiti is evident in its traversal of creed, color and socioeconomic status.

Tokyo to Nairobi

From the metro train system of  New York, to the back alleys of Tokyo. To the scattered murals and tags on  Nairobi’s bridges and perimeter walls. The provoking piece of graffiti art Free Palestine at the University of Cape Town, it appears that graffiti continues to walk forward as a form of artistic expression.

Grafitti art by British artist Ben Eine titled "Tweenty First Century City "City that was presented to the Obama's by the Camerons
Graffiti Art In White House: Did Ben Emie’s Twenty First Century City hang on White House walls during Obama’s Presidency?

In 2010, the heads of two world powers meet. Both were new to office. President Obama had just served his first term while his British counterpart David Cameron had been just elected. As is the norm, gifts were exchanged to seal the occasion.

Among the gifts, was a painting by contemporary British graffiti artist Ben Emie: Twenty First Century City.

Fast forward to 2017 and it is ironic that it is hard to imagine graffiti art in Trump’s white house. You’d think that graffiti and Trump would be a natural fit given what the 45th President of the United States is thought to represent.

By all accounts Trumpism is all about an arrogant show of the middle finger to the excesses of liberalism. Just as Trumpism, graffiti art’s in your-face-attitude elevates it to punch beyond it’s weight against all odds. For Trumpism, this amounts to occupying the highest political office on earth. For graffiti, it is to be art. In these two, we toast to the audacity of expression when it’s least politically correct to do so.

Reflections On Nelson Mandela: The Sum Total Of Being Human

During tea breaks at the white owned law firm, racial segregation subtly reared its head in the form of black Africans, obviously junior employees, having to use a separate set of cups from what the rest of the employees, senior white partners and their handlers, used for their tea. The tea was the same, the cups were different. Timidity was written all over the face of a youthful Nelson Mandela, up until this point having had minimal acts of rebellion, countable in half a hand.

Women hold a huge potrait of Winnie Mandela in celebration of her life
Winnie Mandela Memorial in Welkom, Free State Province, South Africa. Image/Courtesy. 

Then one day it was tea break at the law firm and Gaur Radebe, a young black man starting out at the law firm, went ahead and picked one of the cups reserved for the whites at the firm, and urged an undecided Mandela to do the same. ‘A cup is a cup,’ Gaur Radebe pretended to reason in perpetuating his act of courageous defiance. Then Gaur Radebe and Nelson Mandela served the tea and drank it on previously white’s only cups.

There and then Nelson Mandela began seeing and sensing something deeper than he had done throughout his new life in Johannesburg. So it was possible to defy the whites at the law firm? So it was even possible to say a cup is a cup like Gaur Radebe did, and stick to that reasoning? Because anyway, a cup is a cup.

The conversation then was, if they could defy the whites with regard to the cups at the law firm, then at what other level could they also defy and confront the whites with courageous defiance like Gaur Radebe had shown? The frontiers and possibilities for defiance began to seem real, and possibly endless.

“For twenty seven years you sit inside prison walls and take all these in, and choose to become a product not of anger and pain and retribution, but a figure in whom the revolutionary, the diplomat, the child, the youth, could all begin to see a reflection of themselves in, an all encompassing melting pot.”

Gaur Radebes

The elephant in the room though remained apartheid, which remained a frontier for defiance for the newly self recruited rebels, but was there a possibility of confronting apartheid the same way they had confronted the issue of cups at the law firm? Mandela knew about the ANC. He was yet another cadre in its rank and file, young and hopeful. The things the Gaur Radebes began doing in his life are the things that sparked the thoughts and ideas, gave birth to the blind courage, the soft long lasting mental stamina to last a soldier on the front line.

As the people of the world gathered in unison in their thoughts and emotions mourning Nelson Mandela for just over a week now past since his passing, the larger than life persona celebrated across the globe as a symbol of hope and reconciliation, father of the Rainbow Nation, is the image that many wanted to stick with as their enduring memory of the enigma, the Mandela.

Yet there had been the Gaur Radebe moments in Nelson Mandela’s life, moments where and when almost negligible acts of courage began forming the strength within him which would make the long walk to freedom bearable in the eye of insurmountable adversity. It took the sort of Gaur Radebe tea break mini-rebellion, followed by another, then another act of minimalist defiance for the Nelson Mandela colossus to begin to come into being.

First Among Equals

Yet when the Oliver Tambos, when the Walter and Albertina Sisulus, when the Govan Mbekis came along Nelson Mandela did not automatically stand out as the leader of the pack, but as a silent reservoir of fortitude who was willing to go into the underground and disguise himself as many things, not knowing that eventually he would emerge as the face of his peers and their struggle.

It took time and little steps along the way for the larger picture to come together as is being painted in simple large strokes across the globe. It took the young Mandela and his cadre at the ANC Youth League to listen to Chief Albert Luthuli, an elder, and it also took the young, newly politicized group to install Chief Luthuli as head of the ANC as a strategic move on their part seeing that Chief Luthuli was already an old man who would hand down the reigns of leadership to them at some point not far away, at which point the young men would be ready to take the mantle of leadership.

They collectively thought ahead, were cognizant of their limitations and did as much as they did to buy time and ready themselves for what lay ahead. The journey did not just happen on its own. It took planning. It took thought. It took sacrifice.

Pragmatic

Then overt engagement of the apartheid regime came. Risky, demanding and draining, save for the shared sense of comradeship within the movement which re-energized the revolutionaries. The prospect of prison began being real, and Nelson Mandela physically exercised and kept fit knowing he would need a lean fit body were he to survive prison.

He fondly talked about how funny everyone looked naked whenever they were arrested and had to be stripped for guards to search them, saying people’s bodies looked funnier without clothes on than one would have imagined. He did not want to look funny naked, either, hence the intense work outs, thinking like a young revolutionary in every step of the way.

The same Nelson Mandela, lover of peace and embodiment of reconciliation was forced to form Umkhonto we
Sizwe, spear of the nation, the armed wing of the ANC, out of circumstance. The apartheid regime could no longer understand any other language other than the least desired militant confrontation since the ANC was of lesser military might. The spear had to come alive.

Plaque commemorating the apartheid struggle unveiled by Nelson Mandela in Soweto, South Africa

Imprisoned

These were the histories which kept Nelson Mandela alive inside Robben Island, memories of struggle and progressive triumph, knowing that even prison too could be overcome, not knowing how long he and his colleagues would have to stay in. These tiny strokes of history, these tiny mixes of color and texture of the life of Nelson Mandela are what burst into being the larger than life persona loved across the globe, not erasing the history that he was once labeled a terrorist, that he was once hunted down like a dangerous criminal on the run by the apartheid regime and its western allies who did not identify with black South Africa’s cause.

For twenty seven years you sit inside prison walls and take all these in, and choose to become a product not of anger and pain and retribution, but a figure in whom the revolutionary, the diplomat, the child, the youth, could all begin to see a reflection of themselves in, an all encompassing melting pot.

Inside prison walls also you begin looking at the sum total of your life, the scattered and split family, the broken hearts of loved ones, the tears of a broken mother, the dispersed yet still alive hopes of having a family life once again, if at all. These were the pondering of Nelson Mandela the man, Nelson Mandela the father, Nelson Mandela the son, Nelson Mandela the clansman.

In his revolutionary self, calmed down following years of incarceration, a Nelson Mandela who took in all his missteps and gains gathered himself together, expecting anything, expecting everything and expecting nothing all at the same time. He did not know whether he would walk out of prison cells alive. He did not know whether he would be the leader of his people who he ended up becoming outside of prison. He did not know. He could not anticipate. He could just wait and see, and hope and pray, for something. A release. A return to his family.

Joe Slovo & Nelson Mandela

Joe Slovo, comrade and leader of the South African Communist Party, SACP, also jailed with Nelson Mandela, began whispering to Mandela the possibilities of negotiating with the apartheid regime. It had not been a possibility for a very long time. But comrade Joe Slovo, a white South African communist, began giving birth to the thought inside Nelson Mandela’s head. Govan Mbeki had always suffered ill health and earned pockets of leniency from the prison authorities and the apartheid regime, his son Thabo away in exile. Other ANC leaders were either away in exile, inside Robben Island, or leading covert operations sneaking in and out of the country.

How would they win the battle with such scattered lieutenants?

Was negotiation betrayal of their people’s aspirations or was it a means to an end, an end which they had suffered to reach?

Joe Slovo sowed a seed, and Mandela began looking at the possibilities, contradictions and realities. As the man lies within his ancestors in Qunu, Eastern Cape, among his AbaThembu people, the histories which made him a man, the man, the father, the son, the husband, the global icon, remain scattered all over just as his life remained scattered all over just as his life remained scattered until he gathered it around himself again during and after prison.

Those little histories, those tiny memories, of a human being, must be what the legacy of Nelson Mandela should be constituted of. This should be his enduring legacy, in the minds of admirers, for the world to know that here was a human being, a man. As he lies inside that wooden box, the question remains what he left behind above the surface of the earth. Possibly, a stone will be carved and planted atop his resting place, and his resilient family, his daughters and wife, will ask what befitting epitaph is to be written on the stone.

The Epitaph

They will debate and ask comrades and friends for any ideas. They will come up with quotes and declarations and maxims and statements pregnant with purpose. They will want to get that last honor right and have future Mandela generations catch the essence of his life in a mere phrase plastered on a stone planted on his grave. Finding those words will take them long hours, days and nights. Yet Nelson Mandela, in essence, represented the sum total of being human.

An artists' depiction of Nelson Mandela and what he stood for including Justice, dignity and courage

He had mismatches in his life. He was timid at other times before Gaur Radebe told him a cup is a cup is a cup. He was militant at other times when he needed to sharpen the spear of the nation.

He was mischievous at other times when he laughed at the funny naked bodies of his comrades when the authorities made them strip naked.

He was the father of the Rainbow Nation, all in one.

‘Here Lies A Human Being’ would be a fitting epitaph for a man whose life represented the sum total of being human, the challenges, the growth, the twists and turns, the triumphs, the moments of weakness.

For what else would represent the resilient resident of Soweto’s Vilakazi Street, who on moving into the house for the first time felt very proud as a young man, because now he too had a home in Johannesburg?

Sum Total

In the grave of Nelson Mandela in my mind, the epitaph, just as Joe Slovos or Gaur Radebes, or any other ANC comrade’s would read, because in their eyes they represented the highest ideals of being human beings to each other, sometimes calm and other times erupting, sometimes peaceful and other times restless, the epitaph on Nelson Mandela’s grave would read as curved above, not to take anything away from the total human being that was Nelson Mandela, the pot and vessel in which the entirety of humanity melted into, the human being who other human beings will begin and continue to look back to in their pursuit of being total human beings, of rising from falling, of drawing straight lines out of crooked ones.

_______________________________________________________________________

NELSON ROLIHLAHLA  MANDELA 
July 18, 1918- December 05, 2013
Human Being

_______________________________________________________________________

Maasai beads: the interplay between Europe and Africa

Maasai warriors wearing red and women wearing beads have come to be seen as symbols of “traditional” Africa. These colourful glass beads and red blankets play an important role in Maasai culture.

Image of two Maasai women dressed in traditional attire including Maasai beads and shukas (blankets)
The design and colours of the bead work convey particular messages. Author Supplied

Vanessa Wijngaarden, University of Johannesburg

For thousands of European tourists who travel to East Africa, a visit would be incomplete without buying beads and blankets. What few know is the intricate cultural interconnection between Africa and Europe that resulted in these “traditions”.

Glass beads actually come from Europe. To this day, they are imported from the Czech Republic. The red blankets originally came from Scotland.

Glass beads first arrived in Africa from the first millennium AD through the trans-Saharan and coastal trade. Because they were produced in India they were very expensive and only used by royalty.

From 1480 onwards, the mass export of beads from Europe to East Africa started from Venice and Murano in Italy, Bohemia and the Netherlands. By the late 19th century huge quantities of beads were being used as trade goods.

Although beads were readily available, the Maasai did not develop an interest in them for quite some time. The Iltalala age-set, who were warriors from 1881 until 1905, were the first to use larger numbers of beads to decorate themselves. An age-set is an institutionalised stage in life which is shared by people that are in the same age-category. Maasai age-sets are determined by the circumcision-ceremonies of boys, which initiate them into warriorhood. The time of circumcision defines who belongs to a certain age-set.

The age-sets have names and their members used to paint their bodies and shields to distinguish themselves. When the colonialists prohibited warriors from wearing their weapons in public, the Maasai instead began to wear beaded ornaments which made a public statement about the wearer.

The Iltalala age-set, who were warriors from 1881 until 1905, were the first to use larger numbers of beads to decorate themselves.

Beadwork fashions come and go

Beadwork can tell you several things about the wearer. Specific ornaments and colours indicate whether the person is Maasai or from another ethnic group. Different Maasai clans also use certain beads and colour combinations to indicate their affiliation. Finally, a person’s beadwork reflects his or her position in life. The belt of a young woman is different from the belt of a young man, and an unmarried girl’s earrings are different from those of a married woman.

Within those cultural rules, beadwork fashion changes all the time. Each new generation develops a particular style, including certain materials, colour placements and symbols that unite and identify them. In the spirit of creative competition, the girlfriends of a new age-set make new ornaments to ensure that their men outshine the previous age-set.

Other changes in the fashion result from a shortage of beads of certain types or colours for trade reasons. A good example is the blocking of the Suez Canal during the third Arab Israeli war in 1967.

Rivalry between age-sets also sparks change. Competing age-sets have often chosen to incorporate symbols of adopted technology. For instance, the Iseuri age-set, which was circumcised in the 1950s and 1960s, chose the telegraph pole as their symbol, as a reference to the speed of communication between warriors and their girlfriends.

The next major age-set, the Ilkitoip, elaborated on this theme by adding a large button eye on top of the telegraph pole to symbolise the swirling blue light of a police car. Succeeding age-sets created ornaments with a helicopter rotor blade because helicopters are faster than police cars.

Outside influences

Tourists are often quite surprised and a little disappointed when they find out that Maasai beads are imported from Europe. They would like African beadwork to be “authentic”. And it’s true that some ornaments have more cultural meaning than others.

Some are adapted to tourists’ preferences. For instance Maasai women started to use colours and designs they would not normally use in their own beadwork, just because tourists liked them. And ornaments for tourists are often made of cheaper Chinese beads.

Some items have such symbolic significance that they cannot easily be sold. An example is the Elekitatiet belt, which a woman makes for her daughter-in-law when she has delivered her first baby.

Nowadays uncircumcised boys in the city wear beaded necklaces in Rastafari colours, and warriors buy beaded straps that give their watches a Maasai touch.

So Maasai beadwork continues to be the result of the interaction between European and African cultures, and there is nothing isolated or timeless about it. Rather than exotic, static and detached, it forms an ever changing, multi-cultural realm of exchange of materials and ideas between Africa and Europe.

Vanessa Wijngaarden, Doctor in social anthropology, University of Johannesburg

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.