It Means Beautiful

Ubuhle brings beaded art from KwaZulu-Natal

Ubuhle is the Zulu word for beautiful. It is also the name of the art studio established in 1999 by Bev Gibson and Ntombephi Ntobela. Located in the heart of the lush region known as the Midlands in KwaZulu-Natal, Ubuhle (pronounced oo-BUSH-ley) the studio focuses on traditional beading skills and honors a cultural legacy that has been passed down for generations. In its humble beginnings, Ubuhle cultivated beading as a means to employ impoverished women within the community. The small bead and cloth panels they made eventually evolved into dynamic, expressive works of art. 

For centuries beadwork has been an integral part of the great Zulu civilization. At Ubuhle, this ancient technique is being transformed into a contemporary art form. The artists have had no formal training in art and most are illiterate. They are guided and encouraged to seek out their own innate creativity, exploring their culture and connecting with nature. For the most part the works are abstract in their appearance and masterful in their construction. Symbols and patterns dominate panels with an intense luminosity. 

There is an interesting independence in the air at Ubuhle. Although the artists work in same medium and often alongside each other, each has developed a unique style,  a recognizable signature. The titles of pieces offer the viewer some insight into the artist’s vision of utopian landscapes, starry nights, stormy skies, and on occasion holy creations. The titles on one level are naïve, but on another they showcase expose the artist’s ability to recognize and communicate inner thoughts and ideas while also capturing the literal beauties of their rural landscape and simple environment.  

It is a profound and a significant accomplishment when an art form can emerge as a modern expression from a technique that is so old. The departure from overtly tribal elements is important as it indicates that the artist is responding to personal creative direction beyond ancestral history. They are trusting in something subliminal and pure. The fluid communication of this message has created something truly original and is certainly pushing the boundaries of their craft.   

Ubuhle continues to evolve as the artists forge new territory, emboldened by the ongoing recognition, encouragement and support of their endeavors. The individual acknowledgment of the artists by important collectors has encouraged them to hone, develop and perfect their own distinct style. They recognize that their signature and personal style has value that not only has economic implications and benefits but has a social and cultural impact that brings pride to their tradition, respect for their culture and honor in their community. 

For more about Ubuhle, see www.ubuhlebeads.co.za/Ubuhle/Home.html. Fraser Conlon is director of Amaridian, a New York City gallery of contemporary African art and design. See www.amaridianusa.com .

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