Entering the darkened museum gallery, I get small. I'm being asked to enter the world of beads, the tiniest bit of wholeness imaginable, and to witness how these tiny bits of wholeness, like letters in an alphabet, together author meaningful stories from cultures across the globe. I see umbilical cords stuffed and beaded into the shape of a turtle, once swinging from a Lakota cradle, once a mother's blessing upon the life of her child. I see shiny Palestinian coins bedded into a hat to protect the wearer from random evil forces, and ostrich egg shells carved into beads by Kalahari bushmen, dangling like an apron.
In this world of tiny things, I feel enormous powers. The Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe has brought the world to me through minuscule orbs and called it Beadwork, because beads don't just sit there and look pretty, they work hard.
Quoting the great philosopher of Indian art, Coomaraswamy, the catalog of this exhibit sides with his view that "the beauty of anything unadorned is not increased by ornament, but made more effective by it . . . it is ritually transformed and made to function spiritually as well as physically." This is what I feel in this dark room. The spiritual intention of each creator . . . incantations to the universe to bless, protect, and elevate the everydayness of this life.
Which makes me wonder about our modern penchant in design to strip everything down to the bare essentials. I like the clarity of it a simple solid something - the clean, sharp edges of what is real. But what about the mystery? The poetry? What about the meaning we also strip away? I want and need to understand what we lose in our spare universe of Ikea lines and flat screens and unadorned lives.
To bead . . . or not to bead. That is the question. For me, I will side with the work of beads; the word, as you may know, meaning prayer, and so to bead is to pray, a legacy coming down to us from the rosary. In the long, slow, painstaking work of ornamentation, a woman is not just making her world more beautiful; she is making it more hers. She is connecting the tiny dots of her life into an expansive, liberating story of who she is and what powers she commands and where she sits in this world.
After all, look at Beyonce about to debut in her Vogue September Issue moment, towering headdress and beaded African collar making of her not just a stunning model, but an icon of feminine power. So, too, the women of Ibu in South Sudan, in Kenya and Tanzania, in India and Morocco and beyond . . . each with her own hands and imagination, re-constructing her world into something not just more beautiful but more just. More purposeful. More hospitable to her daughters. Each of these women, in my mind, an ibu. An icon of feminine power. A small and powerful story getting told.
And the bead goes on . . .
Susan Hull Walker