Beads are among the oldest forms of personal adornment that we know of. They have been produced since prehistoric times and continue to hold attraction up until today. They are eagerly collected and studied, and a unique private collection of 19th century powderglass beads is the topic of the volume Wild Beads of Africa.
Published in 2017 already, this is not a new book, but it recently has become available through major channels like Amazon which has sparked a renewed interest in this publication. The collection of beads is that of songwriter Billy Steinberg (you are sure to know his works, Like A Virgin for Madonna and True Colours for Cyndi Lauper, for example), described by none other than bead specialist Jamey D. Allen. So what does this book offer?
First off, this is a highly technical book. By that I mean that the beads themselves and the techniques used to produce and describe them take center stage. In this respect, the beads are presented as decontextualized, collected objects. The beads are characterized as little artworks (which undeniably they are), not as material culture of a people. That is also where the title comes from: Wild Beads is a referral to the art historian term of Wild Beasts, indicating artists of the Fauvist-style (‘wild beasts’ is ‘fauves’ in French), and through this title the collector celebrates the artistic ties between African works and expressionist artists. There is little background information on the peoples that created and valued them, or on their function and meaning in the societies from which they originate. What is missing entirely from this volume for example is a map of Africa indicating where the peoples mentioned in the text live, such as the Krobo and the Ashanti. So, the book is about beads, not about people. This is clearly indicated in the text where the scope of the book is laid out (p. 23), but I wanted to stress this angle to avoid any confusion as to the nature of the book.
And what a book it is! The accompanying texts by Jamey D. Allen take us on a journey in beadmaking where no stone is left unturned when it comes to powderglass. In the back of the book, a glossary of names, terms and beadmaking techniques is a veritable encyclopedia of bead terms. The author presents us with an abundance of facts and descriptions of beadmaking. He offers his own hypothesis on how old powderglass beads were actually created, provides clues and tips on how to discern between old and new beads based on production and wear analysis, and provides detailed descriptions for each bead in the book. Very important in the introduction are the sections that deal with the names of the beads and the values attached to them. You may for example have come across the term Bodom beads for this type of beads, but these are actually quite rare: this word is only used for the beads belonging to the Queen Mother of the Ashanti. I have learned a great deal from the texts!
The photography of the beads is simply breathtaking. Each bead is photographed larger than lifesize, which allows for viewing details like inclusions of seed beads and fragments of trade beads, surface wear and pattern, relief structure and of course the colours! As an archaeologist, I would also be interested in the perforation as that tells us a lot about use and wear, but that is a topic for another book. The photographs truly allow the reader to appreciate the achievements of these beadmakers. In between the descriptions of the beads, the collector shares his thoughts and feelings about individual beads in small text boxes: through these we learn what personal values these beads hold for modern collectors.
Wild Beads of Africa opens the door to an endless range of research possibilities. The production process as put forward by the author not only serves to create better reproductions, but will undoubtedly be of equal value to researchers of the past. A tantalizing hint as to the possible existence of multiple bead industries (p. 11) begs to be investigated further, as this will tell us about intercultural contacts, trade and influences. This research angle is also of interest to study the contacts between West Africa and the West through its materiality. The Krobo identify Krobo Mountain as a place where beads were created, but were forcibly removed from this location by the British in 1892 (p. 22). What stories do these beads hold in terms of colonial history, or values attached to place and process? And now that we know certain beads were only worn by the Queen Mother of the Ashanti for example, what does this tell us about hierarchy, social structure and use of resources?
If you are a collector or curator of powderglass beads, you will find this book an absolute treasure of information for identifying beads and distinguishing old from new production, as well as a very valuable reference source. If you are a scholar of material culture, this book is an excellent stepping stone to get a grasp on this materiality and from there identify new avenues of research. And if you enjoy art for its aesthetics only, by all means indulge yourself in this book: you will not regret it!
Wild Beads of Africa. Old powderglass beads from the collection of Billy Steinberg (2017). By Billy Steinberg, Jamey D. Allen and Fredrik Nilsen. 215 pages, full-colour, in English.
The book was purchased via Amazon.
Link to website published with written permission of Mr. Steinberg.