Beaded Blanket (Irari)

South Africa, Nzundra, Ndebele. After 1940
Wool, glass and plastic beads, cotton
Gift of William D. Roth and Norma Canelas Roth

This beaded blanket, called an irari, was made by an Ndebele woman of South Africa. Since the late nineteenth century, when tiny glass seed beads from Europe became available through trade, Ndzundza Ndebele women have beaded bold geometric designs onto clothing. These designs served social functions as markers of cultural identity and social status. Initially beadwork designs were dominated by a white color field and included only a few randomly placed geometric designs rendered in black or dark blue. After the 1940s Ndebele aesthetics changed. Women began to include a wide range of colors and packed their compositions with geometric and figurative motifs from their everyday lives. For example, this irari features letters (derived from motor vehicle number plates), and schematic representations of telephone poles and houses. The irari beaded blanket is exclusively made and worn as a cape on festive occasions by married women. In addition to representing her social status, such heavily beaded capes testify to the wearer’s artistic abilities, considerable financial resources, and high social standing given her ability to dedicate numerous hours to creating art work.