Large Beaded Artworks

Beads are a phenomenal medium to work with. Using the same skills and techniques, we are able to use beads to make tiny, perfect pieces of jewellery, and enormous works of art. We began making commissioned large-scale beaded artworks in 2010, and in 2017 decided to make a piece of our own design. Below is more information about it.

If you're interested in commissioning a piece for yourself or your organisation, please do get in touch.


Who Is The Artist?

‘Who is the Artist?’ is the result of more than a thousand hours of work by six women.

On its surface, the piece is a map of the world, with lines that show the history of the world trade in glass beads. The gold lines represent production and trade from 3000BC until around 1600AD, with the silver lines showing the more recent trade from around 1600AD onward.

We wanted a means by which to discuss this history with a wider audience in a way that would intrigue and prompt further questions. Our smaller artworks, our jewellery, are all made using glass beads which are imported from Japan, and woven into items of adornment here in Cape Town. All too often when we inform visitors that the beads we use are made in Japan, there is a sense of disappointment. ‘Why don’t you use South African glass beads?’ we are asked. ‘Because there aren’t any’ we reply. ‘So then what is traditional beadwork made from?’ people respond. ‘It depends when it was made. Some very old beadwork is made with beads made in India and China, carried on trade winds across the Indian Ocean. After that beads were brought from Venice, after that predominantly from the Czech Republic.’

Our responses prompt more questions than they answer! So we decided to engage in some deeper research, and make a visual representation of the trade we were attempting to describe.

This history of trade deserves reverence. It tells the story of millennia of human creative endeavours. These tiny pieces of glass were desired by artists all over the world, who each found a way to express something new and unique with them.

This is where we find ourselves asking ‘who is the artist?’. Glass beads in and of themselves are a work of art. They require enormous technical and creative skill to produce. So when a beader receives their working material, it is already art. The beader, the next artist, transforms it into something else. The bead-maker and the bead-stringer or bead-weaver, though they may be thousands of kilometres from one another, nevertheless engage in a creative conversation. The bead-maker does something innovative, and it goes out into the world. If enough weavers or stringers find that bead desirable, the demand for it will increase, and more will be made. The bead-maker also has the ultimate use of the bead in mind when they make it, trying to guess what will be desirable. This is a conversation that has been taking place for around 5000 years with glass beads, and likely many thousands of years more for beads of other materials.

Bead makers, stringers and weavers are rarely called artists or designers. Often when we are referred to as crafters we want to ask ‘why not artists?’. ‘This is beyond craft, this is art’ is a sentiment we hear, an enormous compliment, but also a statement of hierarchy that we’re really uncomfortable with! We want to say ‘what’s wrong with craft?’. So we find ourselves aspiring to art, then rejecting the label as divisive.

This piece does not belong to any individual in our company. It was borne of conversation and collective imagining, and made as a group.

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About The Map

About the map:

Each string holds approximately 600 beads.

There are 580 strings, which means approximately 348,000 beads.

The beads we have used here were made in the Czech Republic, and imported to South Africa by bead expert Stephen Long.

During its creation we realised that Russia, Canada, China, Brazil, Australia and Brazil are absolutely massive. We kept running out of beads! We were also reminded that the world is mostly ocean. We ordered 9kg of black beads, thinking it would be enough, only to have to order another 9kg later.

We used a kilometre and a half of thread.

Each string took 45 minutes to make and attach.

We used the Gall-Peters Projection as the base for the world map. This projection’s priority is ensuring that all areas have the correct relative size, meaning if Brazil looks the same size as the USA, that’s because it is! This method distorts shape but we felt it the most appropriate projection to use.

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The Makers

Marie-José Esther Kapinga

Laurence Kapinga Tshimpaka

Iragena Philberte

Anna Richerby

Susan Richerby

Sandrine Uwizeye


Where In The World Is The Beaded Map?

Who Is The Artist? has been shown at the Musée Quai-Branly Shop in Paris for the past few months. It is now winging it's way to the Rietberg Museum in Zurich, where it will be shown in their upcoming African Beadwork Exhibition. Laurence and I will join it for the opening in early June 2018.