A closer look at South Africa

At the beginning of November, RAMM was visited by two scholars. Their presence was part of the Designation-funded Africa project to explore a sizeable collection of museum objects from South Africa. Much of this material was beadwork that had been acquired during the early 19th century. Unfortunately, early descriptions of location and function were largely inaccurate. RAMM has little in the way of beaded material from the Zulu Kingdom but instead hailed from the coastal areas from the province of Natal.  This reflected the locations of our colonial donors who were based there.

With me was Catherine Elliott, researcher at the Sainsbury Research Unit for the Arts of Africa, Oceania & the Americas, and Nessa Leibhammer,  honorary research fellow at the University of Cape Town. I had met Catherine whilst conducting research into beadwork from Kenya at the British Museum stores.

South Africa

Catherine Elliott (left) and Nessa Leibhammer (right) talk to Tony Eccles, the Curator of Ethnography, about beadwork from Natal.

The collection numbers some 500 items and includes items from South Africa, Zimbabwe, Madagascar, Mozambique and Swaziland.

Always in the hope of making a discovery, there was one find that brought an unexpected surprise. A pair of tall carved human figures from Madagascar/Tanzania that had spent many years in the store with no interpretation and which had not been accessed by the public.

initiation

Early initiation figures, south-east Africa (30/1965/1-2)

These carvings were identified as being old, very likely 19th century in date. These items that would not normally have been collected by the colonial authorities but instead would have been hidden away until used in the initiation ceremonies of young rural boys where they were educated about their history and the duties and responsibilities of being married. Initiation was a means to educate the young about sex.