SAN DIEGO, Calif. - A South African bead trader has come to the West Coast to share the culture of an indigenous tribe in hopes of helping to preserve their traditions.
Since January 26, Stephen Long, a native of Cape Town, South Africa has lectured in four states in an effort to share his collection and training in Xhosa beadwork and tribal culture. Long has been working to preserve the historical beadwork for nearly 20 years.
“I’m running out of time…In 20 years, this will all be gone,” Long said, referring to a table full of various bead garments.
Long spoke of his passion for the preservation of the Xhosa beadwork at a Sunday workshop sponsored by the Bead Society of San Diego County. The society, including Burt and Arlene Watson, are the primary sponsors of Long’s visit. The couple met Long last year when he was their guide on a Beadventure trip in South Africa. Besides his previous trips in 2002 and 2004, Long will host another trip in September.
Although Long is a bead trader by profession, his journey as a preservationist and historian of the Xhosa people first began at the age of five. It was unusual for a Caucasian to enter the Xhosa community and be accepted, let alone go against the restrictions of apartheid South Africa.
Long studied under local shepherds and herdsmen in the Xhosa language and culture, and his affinity for the Xhosa people led him to begin his collection of beadwork. Since then, he has traveled four times a year searching the Xhosa villages for beadwork, each trip lasting up to six weeks.
He estimates that there remain tens of thousand of villages to search, so he works without break from dawn until night falls.
At night, even locals do not venture out of their huts for fear of becoming a crime victim. This fear was included in the design of one piece Long exhibited - a brass-studded leather purse with a very small compartment. The compartment was created in case the owner passed out on the side of the road after an evening of heavy drinking, making it harder to steal the money inside.
Back in South Africa, Long recently began training seven individuals in the 20 techniques used in Xhosa beadwork. The group, consisting mostly of teenage girls and their mothers, produces beadwork for the tourist market.
Long says that the primary design element is the way that colors correspond to age. Adults over 40 wear blue and pink beads incorporated into their designs. Teens and younger adults opt for the more brightly colored oranges and greens. Today’s beadwork is becoming even more colorful as silver and gold beads are added.
But Long is worried about the loss of traditional culture. The Xhosa language is becoming obsolete as English is taking over various South African dialects. Moreover, little remains of their distinctive beadwork, the main form of artistic expression in Xhosa culture.
From the 1820s to 1850s, organic material such as ostrich shell, seeds and bones formally used for beadwork began being replaced by imported glass. The sinew that was once widely used became hard to find after the 1950s as cotton and synthetic materials were imported.
Remnants of the Xhosa past are also being buried along with the dying elders. An Egyptian mummy was recently discovered covered in beads, and the Xhosa similarly bury the intricate beadwork with their owners.
“Men become westernized and rarely wear beads anymore,” Long added. Women now wear most of the Xhosa beadwork, which was originally crafted for use in male initiation ceremonies, other celebrations and decoration.
Long is responsible for the Xhosa beadwork restoration, as the elder women who know the advanced beading techniques prefer to create anew rather than help Long with his tedious restorations. Long sells the beaded pieces to museums, private collectors, shops and commercial galleries in Cape Town.
For information about the South African Beadventure: www.beadventure.net. For information about The Bead Society of San Diego: www.sdbeadsociety.org.