OSHKOSH – It’s hard to miss the nearly 15-foot-tall colorful cross that hangs in the first-floor gallery of the Paine Art Center and Garden, and all it takes is one glance to appreciate the effort that must have been devoted to the realization of such a great work.
But don’t stop there.
Come a little closer and you will notice the representations of darkness, on the right, and light, on the left, behind the cross.
Closer still: Is that…thousands of tiny marbles? Are all these pictures made of…pearls? (You might find yourself backing off again.)
Yes. “African Crucifixion” and the other beadwork textiles on display at the art center are meticulously and diligently crafted by Ubuhle women, a small community of women who live and work in rural KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, using tiny Czech glass beads.
“Ubuhle” means “beauty” in the Xhosa and Zulu languages, and that’s an accurate description. The women painstakingly craft each piece, one bead at a time. The pieces, called “ndwangos”, can take 10 months or more to complete.
The exhibition is “the first of its kind” for the Paine
Laura Fiser, the Paine’s curator, said she was in love with the pieces and the stories behind the women who make them.
“You are drawn to beauty, color, patterns and shapes, but the complexity leaves you a little in awe, and then you start reading the stories about the women, their families and the brotherhood they have created,” she noted. “Community is a wonderful story of resilience, perseverance and shared artistic creation.”
“Ubuhle Women: Beadwork and the Art of Independence” is on display through May 22 at Paine, 1410 Algoma Blvd. The traveling exhibit features ndwangos created by six Ubuhle women, including the community’s co-founder, Ntombephi “Induna” Ntobela. The pieces vary in size from just over a foot long to the largest, “African Crucifixion”, which was created by several artists.
The exhibit was developed by the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum in Washington, DC, with curators Bev Gibson, the other co-founder of the Ubuhle Community, and James Green. International Arts & Artists of Washington, DC organized the exhibit for touring.
Fiser said this is the first exhibition of African art that Paine has done and also the first in her medium, at least in the nearly 17 years she has worked there.
“It’s one of the only bead exhibits we’ve ever shown in the gallery, at least since I’ve been here,” Fiser said. “It’s a really different show for us.”
The exhibit includes a documentary that shares the story of the Ubuhle women and a video of the artists working in their community. It also gives viewers an idea of the beading technique – these pieces are not planned in advance; rather, women are inspired by the world around them.
The exhibition features works by five living artists and one who has since died.
Who are the Ubuhle women?
Ntobela and Gibson established the Ubuhle community in 1999 on a former sugarcane plantation. Many local women already knew how to work with beads, making it a natural transition to for-profit work. Ntobela and Gibson also teach women who are unfamiliar with this skill.
Gibson, who spoke via a Zoom call from France in February, said it started as a way to help women earn their own money and, therefore, have their own freedom. Twenty-two years later, she says, it’s still surreal to see these women recognized for their work around the world.
“I had absolutely no idea, sitting under a tree (in South Africa)…that we would ever be in the greatest museums in the world,” she said. “It’s such a crazy story that you couldn’t imagine it.”
Ndwangos are created on a black fabric base stretched like a canvas. The women sew the glass beads onto the fabric by hand, often sitting together and working outside. The images they create are inspired by nature as well as the memories and emotions of the artists.
Visiting the exhibit, Gibson said it was easy for him to sense the presence of the artists. Some coins commemorate losses: the community of Ubuhle has lost five artists to illnesses, including HIV/AIDS, since 2006.
“We are always overwhelmed with emotion when we see these works,” she said. “It’s spiritual: hopes, dreams and messages are beaded in it.”
The Ubuhle community is still active. The older generations teach the younger ones. Although they were incredibly successful, Gibson said what strikes her most about Ntobela and the other women is how grounded they have remained.
Ntobela, for example, continues to cook over a fire every night, grows her own vegetables and never lets anything go to waste.
“She holds onto those values that we all realize we should have if we don’t want to destroy the planet,” Gibson said. “These artists accept, acknowledge and embrace their success, but they keep their inner core true.”
Viewers will walk away with a miraculous story of hope
While you can look at photos, Gibson and Fiser said they don’t do the artwork justice. Nothing compares to seeing these pieces up close and personal, practically putting yourself in the women’s shoes.
“We can see a lot of images in advance (but) nothing captures the brightness and vibrancy of the room in person,” Fiser said. “Even little things when we unbox them, just seeing how intricate they are… It’s even hard to find the artist’s hand signs.”
The story of the Ubuhle community is something of a miracle, and Gibson hopes the “Ubuhle Women” exhibit can share that message with its viewers.
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“These women are illiterate and have been denied a Western education, but their work is in the most prestigious art galleries in the world,” she said. “No matter how impossible the journey may seem…truly believe you have a purpose and never give up.”
She thinks that message is especially powerful after the past two years. In difficult times, she believes, these pieces can offer messages of hope.
“It makes you feel good about yourself,” Gibson said. “We have to be gentle with ourselves, listen to the right messages and see the beauty.”
“Ubuhle Women: Beadwork and the Art of Independence” is on display until May 22. The Paine is open 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. Tickets are $9 for adults and $5 for youth.
Reservations are recommended and can be made at thepaine.org or by calling 920-235-6903.