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PostPosted: Mon Jan 29, 2007 8:38 am 

Joined: Fri Apr 14, 2006 7:18 am
Posts: 93
In December 2006, a new temporary exhibit went up at the Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam, and it has turned out to be a door-crasher. Entitled “Beauty and the Bead” (“Pracht en Kraal”), it lives up to its name. It is about beads. And it is truly beautiful. The objects on display are exquisite. Each has been selected from many collections around the world with utmost care. They constitute the most compelling feature of the exhibit, a visual feast.

A review of this bead exhibition is appropriate for this website because it focuses on the use of beads as bodily (and clothing) adornment; ethnographic textiles figure therefore significantly.

The exhibit themes are straight-forward and simple: time and space. Beads are found in all cultures throughout the world. And in all time periods. They are associated with the earliest archaeological findings, and they remain of importance in expressions of bodily adornment up to the present. In all cultures they accompany all phases of the life-cycle from birth to death. The time-space grid yields the most inclusive and solid framework to review the universal role of beads. It does not contribute anything new, however. The exhibit is a documentary review, but not a new treatment of the topic. What is compelling is to see it all laid out (and that has been done very skillfully) in the magnificent central exhibit hall of the Tropenmuseum.

The exhibit pays special attention to the use of beads in modern fashion. (In this regard, the Amsterdam Fashion Week happening now has a splashy complement.)

Upon entry into the exhibit, a display of bead types fills a faceted exhibit case that is designed like a fantastically large bead. It sets the tone. The form of the bead has inspired the design of the entire exhibit space. There are tall showcases on the outside, encircling, as it were, the short showcases in the centre area.

The tall exhibit cases on the left-hand side are filled with illustrations of how beads are used to mark the phases of the life-cycle. The tall cases on the right review the materials used as beads. In the middle, the body is emphasized, how beads adorn the feet, the hips, the torso, the neck and head. Behind that is the catwalk and display cases of beads in high western fashion.

The variety and the juxtapositions of the displayed objects are illustrative of the way the entire exhibit has been built up. In the first instance, Western clothing objects are juxtaposed with non-Western clothing objects. The exhibit sub-title puts it in a nutshell: from Madonna to the Massai. The West has not been given a privileged position of superiority gazing at the way the Other decorates his life, but is a member of the Global Village indulging in rituals and ceremonies just as all other Homo sapiens. A remarkably finely beaded 19th century European baby jacket is situated next to a beaded papoos used by North American Indians, for example. Inuit clothing from Greenland is adjacent to adornment used by the Zulu of South Africa. The white wedding gown worn by Princess Grace of Monaco complements the beaded outfit worn by an Iban Dayak bride in Indonesia. The entire exhibit consists of such juxtapositions of extraordinary examples from all cultures.

A crucial component of the exhibit, therefore, is the display of trade beads at the entrance. One showcase contains the bead merchandize that the African explorer/trader Henry Morton Stanley had with him to exchange for food and protection, and the second is the full range of Venetian Beads used in the African slave trade. Both are extraordinarily complete collections that generate insight into the international nature of bead production and trade. Little wonder that one finds parallels in the use of beads in cultures far distant from one another.

Exhibit texts are in Dutch and English. English-speaking films have Dutch subtitles. A nicely-illustrated catalogue of the same title as the exhibition written by Loan Oei, the guest curator, traces the exhibit themes and allows the visitor to continue to enjoy the exhibit long after leaving the exhibit hall. It, however, is only in Dutch.

The exhibit stays up until 13 May 2007.

Sandra Niessen

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