Theme: South African Essence

Unique forms, dymanic patterns and vibrantly coloured glass beads come together in swoon-worthy neck pieces by The Herd. Embedded with meaning relevant to founder and designer Mbali Mthethwa’s Zulu heritage and worldly outlook, these collector’s items are inspired by a culture where beads are used as a form of communication. “My starting point was zooming into the traditional Zulu love letter,” says Joburg-based Mthethwa, talking of incwadi yothando, the manner in which messages would be conveyed to lovers through the patterns and colours woven into beadwork. Not wanting to disrespect this ancient tradition, she veered off in a very personal direction, creating messages and narratives that relate both to the history of her people and her big-city upbringing, using different shapes and non-traditional colours. “These are my own letters as an urban Zulu woman,” she explains. The “letters” are filled with narratives passed on to Mthethwa by her ancestors, in dreams, or through stories told by family members, archival research or inspiration found in museums or travel. Her Isimo Somhlaba collection emerged from a dream about the land that her ancestors came from, pondering their migration from Central to South Africa, and reading thesis material on Zulu beads and the Nguni culture. This collection, meaning “the condition of the land” in English, depicts imaginary shapes of what the landscape of Zululand would have looked like in the early 1800s, as one of the first bead-excavation studies conducted in SA revealed beads that had travelled to this country during that period. Mthethwa launched The Herd in October 2018. Part of her ambition was to ensure that traditional ways of creating art are not forgotten. She works with a talented family of beaders in KwaZulu-Natal, commissioning them to transform her designs into extraordinary pieces of wearable art (and bigger wall-art pieces). She sends them the high-quality glass Czech and Japanese Miyuki beads along with colour and pattern instructions. At first, the crafters were skeptical of her contemporary approach. “They had never used those colours before, and they weren’t sure they could make my designs, especially as they prefer not to work with such small beads,” she says, admitting that there’s still some resistance from staunch traditionalists. “But those who love it are so inspired and encouraged to continue beading.” Mthethwa worries about the way in which African beading has been left for older women to do, with hardly any youth interested in learning. “Now there are young people saying ‘Gosh, I didn’t know you could do this with beads!’,” she says of the renewed excitement in the community with which she works. “Beading doesn’t need to be stuck in one era, it can embrace innovation,” she insists. “These pieces are bridging the old and new world. There’s room for everything to exist.” The Herd neck pieces are available at Convoy in Johannesburg, and the Zeitz MOCAA Store in Cape Town. 

100 Beautiful Things is presented by the V&A Waterfront in celebration of South Africa’s creativity, compassion, ingenuity and resilience. Every week we will be showcasing five amazingly beautiful creative things that make us proud. It is curated in partnership with Platform Creative.