Kathryn Brugioni Gabrielli
Zulu beadwork is a world-famous and distinctive African art form, which has a long history in southern Africa. Within the context of the three-year, Mellon-funded Conservation Initiative in African Art at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, two beaded ensembles belonging to a married Zulu man and woman were documented, studied, and treated in collaboration with Zulu beadwork expert, historian, and artist, Hlengiwe Dube. Collected by the VMFA in 2013, each ensemble is comprised of approximately fifteen pieces, all requiring both a cultural examination and technical analysis to ensure accurate documentation, preservation, and presentation of the parts and of the whole. This study begins with a description of these ensembles, their components, and their collection history and discusses the documentation process as well as the findings of technical analysis. These examinations informed the chosen treatment and display approaches, in collaboration with our cultural informant. In addition to the cultural and technical analyses, the conservation treatment of these ensembles synthesized traditional techniques with contemporary museum practices. Traditional Zulu stitches were named, learned, documented, and executed using conservation-grade materials to stabilize loose beading and to in-fill losses. This improved the stability of the costume elements and presented them in a culturally appropriate manner. Following treatment, our improved understanding of the social and cultural context of use of these materials allowed the grant team to arrive at an effective display strategy for these works. Installation of two mannequins and reinstallation of complementary material from the museum’s collection was completed for the grant’s capstone symposium in April 2019. Through this marriage of technical and traditional approaches to the understanding of these costumes and their context of use, the project succeeded in facilitating a bilateral exchange of knowledge. An appreciation of the dynamic and experiential qualities of such heritage and the process of learning about it were just as important to the outcome of this study as the materials analysis undertaken and the precise treatment steps implemented.