Beaded World Map of the World Bead Trade!

(We will think of a better name for it before we finish making it!)

There's a conversation we find ourselves repeatedly having in our shops. We'll brag to a visitor about the amazing Japanese glass seed beads we use in our work, and they'll say 'oh, why don't you use South African ones?'. We'll explain that South Africa doesn't have, and never has had, a glass seed bead factory. All of the beads that have ever been used in South African beadwork have been imported. At this point we discover quite how Eurocentric many of our education systems are, because many people's next assumption is that glass seed beads must therefore have arrived with European sailors and colonisers. 

The world trade in small glass beads is, in fact, at least three centuries older than Christianity. Britain was busy being invaded by the Belgics and Julius Caesar when the trade was getting underway in the pacific. As Peter Francis Jr. states in his book 'Asia's Maritime Bead Trade, 300BC to the Present':

"The Indo-Pacific bead industry produced one of, if not the, most widespread and ubiquitous trade items of all time, surviving well over 2000 years... The study of these small beads may furnish clues to wider questions being asked by scholars about the past. They have the potential to generate hypotheses about the historical relations between people."

Laurence and I decided that we needed to create a piece of art that could communicate the incredible history of glass seed beads and their trade. We began the planning a few weeks ago and we are finally ready to start stringing it. All 560 lines of it!

A few years ago we developed a system for making enormous beaded artworks using 5mm glass seed beads, which make a solid, yet transparent image. The largest we ever made was nine metres wide and three metres tall. It features in this video about the commissioning artist, Bili Bidjocka:

Our current, self-commissioned piece, is in one way less ambitious - it'll only be 2.8 metres wide. What is lacks in width, however, it more than makes up for in complexity!

When we embarked upon this project, I rather naively assumed that someone would have already made a visual representation of the history of the glass bead trade. Ha! I have searched high and low and am yet to find such a map! So what began as a visual arts project has now also become an academic exercise in trying to get my hands on as much data as possible. This project has reminded me of a feeling I had long forgotten. Whilst researching essays on exchange at the University of British Columbia I would find that every piece of work threatened to become a thesis. Every text referenced in another was available to me in the absurdly well stocked library or online. (This was never a problem at the University of Glasgow, where every book I wanted had to be brought up from London at considerable expense!)

This project too is threatening to become a thesis. I had no idea of the extent of industry and trade in the Pacific for the past few thousand years! We kept saying to ourselves 'well, if we begin on the eastern side of the map, we can keep researching as we work, because trans-Pacific bead trading only began relatively recently', so we can be sure we know all the trade routes we need to indicate there at least until we get to the Philippines'. How wrong we were. The Chinese were exporting beads to Manila in the 16th century which were then taken to Mexico by the Spanish, and in the 18th century "The Russians, who were barred from using Chinese ports, bought beads along the Mongolian border and took them during their first expedition to Alaska" (Francis Jr, 2002, p67). 

Because we are desperate to start work, and if we waited until I was sure I had read everything on the subject it would take years, we have had to accept that this artwork will not be a definitive academic data source, but rather a beautiful representation of some of the many, many trade routes of glass beads across the globe across time.

I'll be posting lots of photographs and intriguing findings from my research as time goes on. For now, here are a few pictures of Laurence and I setting up our paper map which will guide our stringing. When we finish we'll have a time-lapse video of the whole piece being made. And if you happen to be in Newlands, Cape Town in the next few weeks, please pop in to Montebello, and you'll be able to see it in progress for yourself!