The Zulu are South Africa's largest ethnic group, numbering around 10-11 million people in the province of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa, though some live in Mozambique, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. The Zulu have produced craft objects and elaborate dress for ritual and other occasions since the early 1700s or before. However, the function, style and symbolic meaning of many of these objects have changed over the centuries.
The Zulu originally lived as a minor northern Nguni group along the middle reaches of the White Umfolozi River of South Africa. King Shaka Senzangakhona Zulu (c. 1787–1828) significantly expanded Zulu territory by conquering other northern Nguni groups and establishing a powerful militarist state. The British destroyed the Zulu kingdom in 1879 after the Anglo-Zulu War.
According to scholars, the social and political upsets of the late 19th and 20th centuries may account for the changes in Zulu art production at this time. Colonialism shifted patterns in the control and distribution of imported materials and European settlement also disrupted traditional Zulu life.
Political finery held great importance in the Zulu kingdom before its destruction in 1879. Artisans used imported materials like glass beads and brass cuffs (izingxotha) to craft objects made exclusively for royalty.
Certain materials often denoted rank: only the king could wear large beads, while women from his royal enclosure wore brass neckbands, beaded necklaces and waistbands of red, blue and white beads. After 1879, beads lost their value as status symbols. By the early 20th century, no-royal Zulus used beads to fashion loincloths and necklaces previously woven from grass and other fibers.
The Zulu use utilitarian wooden objects and everyday clothing to express the relationships between men and women, as well as the relationships between living Zulu and their ancestors.
The number of Zulu woodcarvers dropped after the disruptive population shifts and forced labor brought by European colonialism and South African apartheid. By the late 20th century, the carvers that remain produce meatplates, milkpails, spoons, and headrests.
Women buy headrests as part of a marriage dowry that includes grass sleeping-mats and pots. Carvers make meatplates and milkpails for male heads of homesteads because the Zulu associate cattle and the foods they produce with the ancestors and thus with the continuity of the male lineage.
The style and decoration of Zulu meatplates, milkpails and headrests varies widely. The most common motif is the amasumpa design, known as "warts," which represents cattle. The Zulu often use chevron patterns as well—a chevron is a V-shaped pattern often repeated—and refer to chevrons as snakes.
Married women wear leather skirts called isidwaba, made from the hide of animals belonging to the woman's father. The Zulu consider the isidwaba as both the property of and sign of respect for the ancestors, as well as a form of protection against them. In some areas the isidwaba are short, straight and worn under cloth skirts, while in other areas isidwaba are decorated with elaborately beaded panels. Married women also wear grass belts and complex headdresses.
Unlike Zulu men, women rarely work in the cities. Absent husbands encourage their wives to observe and protect Zulu traditions, so it is not uncommon for Zulu women to wear traditional attire at all times and to make the beaded panels considered essential to Zulu dress.
Thus Zulu women have developed the beadwork tradition into a thriving art form with a series of regional variations in the use of color, pattern and style. Not only do styles denote geographical identities, but certain colors and motifs in beadwork may identify the wearer as belonging a particular institution (like a church) or of a particular family. Despite regional variations, Zulu beaded objects are consistent in function: they all define the sexual and marital status of the wearer.