Ntobela My Sea My Sister My Tears

Stitches of Hope

The Dayton Art Institute showcases thought-provoking beadwork by South Africa’s Ubuhle women. 

The artists who ply their talent at Little Farm, an all-female guild near the coastal city of Durban in the South African province of KwaZulu-Natal, are no strangers to heartache and poverty. 

Known collectively as Ubuhle (which means “beautiful” in their native language of Xhosa), they vividly recall the apartheid that up until 1991 caused unspeakable violence and discrimination. The artistry they practice now reflects past sorrows, as well as the realities of today. 

“‘Ndenzeni’: What Have I Done?” is Nolindelo Sidibi’s plaintive response to living with HIV. It depicts a red AIDS ribbon surrounded by thousands of rainbow-hued beads. Thando Ntobela chose to illustrate her mother’s strength by depicting an “Ankoli Bull” in white, red, green, blue and orange beads, while honoring her father’s love of gardening in shades of forest and mint. 

The two canvases are among 31 intricate tapestries featured in “Ubuhle Women: Beadwork and the Art of Independence,” on display at the Dayton Art Institute through Sept. 10. Organized by the Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum in Washington, D.C., the exhibition showcases the art form its creators call ndwango (meaning “cloth” or “rag”). The works feature religious, metaphysical and earthbound themes inherent in the artists’ culture in both literal and abstract ways. 

To make the tapestries, each artist hand sews tiny colored Czech glass beads onto black fabric resembling the headscarves and skirts the women grew up wearing. Unlike traditional beadwork, which usually adorns clothing, ndwango works are hung for display. 

“The play of light as it strikes each bead on these tapestries in different ways is riveting,” says Katherine Ryckman Siegwarth, assistant curator of collections and exhibitions at the Dayton Art Institute, when describing the canvases, which range in size from 15-by-15 inches to 15-by-23 feet. “The light energizes each piece in ways that don’t happen in the same way it would when illuminating a painting or photograph. It’s very novel and exciting to see. I really hope that when guests come to the exhibition, they don’t think of it as a craft show. These are truly breathtaking artworks.”      Zondlile Zondo's "I Am Ill I Still See Color and Beauty"

Zondlile Zondo’s “I Am Ill, I Still See Color and Beauty” is part of the Dayton Art Institute exhibition. (artwork courtesy of Dayton Art Institute)

Artist Ntombephi “Induna” Ntobela (induna means “leader”) and her friend Bev Gibson, who serves as the exhibition’s chief curator, established the Ubuhle community in 1999. 

Ntobela, whose husband worked as a cane cutter on a sugar plantation, began making beadwork items to supplement the family’s income. The duo shared a vision to help women use artistic skills handed down through generations to achieve financial independence. When the artists are not working on their technique, they are raising families and running households. They bead while taking breaks from chopping wood or tending their gardens.

“On average, each piece takes approximately 10 months to complete,” Siegwarth says. “So it’s easy to see why these works become a form of art therapy, a form of catharsis. Just based on the amount of time it takes to create them, these artists have literally woven their histories into these works. Even when the images deal with difficult topics, they are very uplifting. The perseverance of these artists comes through in all they create.”

Zondlile Zondo is currently the only Zulu member of the group, and her cultural heritage is reflected in her beadwork, which is filled with bold patterns and eye-popping primary colors liked those found in “My Mother’s Peach Tree,” a focal point of the Dayton Art Institute show. In her exhibition notes, the artist wrote, “At home where I grew up, there was a peach tree. My mother loved it and … she used to take out her sewing machine and sit under the tree. … When planning this ndwango, I had a sudden memory of that tree where my mother used to sit when we were extremely poor. We didn’t even have our own home and my mother was striving so that things would be okay for us, but we had this peach tree and when it bloomed it was blazing … blazingly beautiful.”

“When you’re working on an object like this, there is a sense of mindfulness,” Siegwarth explains. “The canvas becomes a place to encode feelings and memories. Anyone who sees these works can relate to the idea of forming a connection to our past. Zondlile’s use of color and form has inspired other artists and been crucial to the development of the art form.”

Many of the canvases symbolize hope and unity. The curator cites “My Sea, My Sister, My Tears,” by the collective’s leader, Ntombephi Ntobela, as a magnificent example of those messages. Swirls of cerulean, cornflower and sapphire beads depict what the artist clearly considers to be the liquid of our existence. For the text accompanying the exhibition, Ntobela wrote, “We are made of water; we exist because of water. It is the connection between all that lives. Under our skin we are all blue because we are all made of water. We are related by water and water is the source of all life.”

“This is a great abstract,” Siegwarth says. “It doesn’t immediately say water, but you get a sense of movement throughout the work through Ntombephi’s thoughtful color palette and spiraling shapes. Not only is it visually engaging, but it also addresses a universal concept: She is saying how water is all of us, and therefore we are all one. I find something very poetic in that.”

Dayton Art Institute
456 Belmonte Park N., Dayton 45405, 
937/223-4278, daytonartinstitute.org
Hours: Wed., Fri. & Sat. 11 a.m.–5 p.m., Thur. 11 a.m.–8 p.m., Sun. noon–5 p.m.
Admission: Adults $14, seniors and students 18+ with ID $11, children 7–17 $6, children 6 and under free