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Background of Traditional Zulu Beadwork

The Zulu people are an ethnic group whose members live mainly in the South African province of KwaZulu-Natal.  Zulu beadwork is rich in tradition and cultural meaning. Beadwork is practiced by Zulu women and is passed down through generations by the older women in the family. They become communities of their own and are empowered by their skill and contributions to their communities. What makes this intricate craft and art unique is the use of decorative geometrical designs, particularly the triangle, and colors to convey a message.

The Triangle

The primary shape used in traditional Zulu beadwork is the triangle. How the triangles are positioned within a particular beadwork signify different meanings:

  • A triangle pointing down represents an unmarried woman.
  • A triangle pointing up represents an unmarried man.
  • Two triangles joined at the base represent a married woman
  • Two triangles joined at the points in an hourglass shape represent a married man.

These are, however, the broad meanings of what each colour represents and meaning can vary depending on the context, connotation or shade of colour used. The design and colors of the beadwork together convey a message.

The Colors

The seven main colors used by the Zulu craftswomen are green, blue, red, black, white, yellow, and pink. Each of these colors has a positive meaning, however the meaning can be altered by the context in which the beads are used within the jewelry piece.

Positive Meanings of Colors

  • green – contentment, bliss
  • blue – faithfulness
  • red – strong emotion
  • black – marriage
  • white – love
  • yellow – wealth
  • pink – adds emphasis to a promise

Negative Meanings of Colors

  • green – illness
  • blue – hostility, ill feelings
  • red – anger, impatience
  • black – death, sorrow, despair
  • white – has no negative meaning
  • yellow – badness
  • pink – poverty

This handmade beadwork is often sold to tourist as gifts, and is an important income source for the Zulu people.

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