The Venerable Bead: South African Beaders Help Craft a Massive Montrose Artwork

By | September 10, 2014
360 Degrees Vanishing, seen from Montrose. Image courtesy Selven O'Keef Jarmon.
360 Degrees Vanishing, view of the Montrose entrance to Art League Houston. Image courtesy Selven O’Keef Jarmon.

When viewers lay their eyes on the Art League Houston building this October, Selven O’Keef Jarmon wants them to ask questions.

Who covered this metal structure with more than 400,000 giant beads?

How on earth did they do it?

And, after learning the answers to the first two inquiries, this one: Why did 16 artists travel from the other side of the world to Houston, midsummer, to craft the equivalent of a vast quilt?

The moment someone asks himself these questions, says Jarmon, the last phase of his art project 360 Degrees Vanishing will be complete. “I’m moving people around to create a particular aesthetic,” he notes.

The Houston-born, Texas Southern University-educated artist was for years the in-house fashion designer at Tootsies. There, he moved shantung-sheathed models down runways. This time, however, Jarmon is stringing together two countries, two art traditions, two social problems, and one conscience. The result will be a mammoth beaded fabric, with an abstract design, draped over the angular Art League Houston headquarters at Montrose and Willard.

Artist Selven O'Keefe Jarmon (far right) with South African beaders. Photo by Juan Islas.
Artist Selven O’Keef Jarmon (far right)  next to the project’s South African director, Bulelwa Bam, with beaders (left to right) Mvuzo Ntlantsana and Joyce Kelele. Photo by Juan Islas.

Jarmon’s idea began to form in South Africa in 2006. He had moved there a few years earlier to see if he could use his fashion and art training as a means of community development. One result of that was the creation of a reality TV show, a “real reality makeover show,” as he told a University of Houston interviewer a few years later, where he “asked five different communities how to feel better, work better, and to address their own social challenges.” The show was popular, and helped lead to the creation of Kwanda Klothing, a line of clothing built by people in the impoverished communities.

While in South Africa, Jarmon grew convinced that the country’s national art of beading, both on dazzling ceremonial clothes and as a street-chic embellishment of shoes, shirts, and jeans, was dying out. While most South Africans own at least one traditional garment, and display beadwork touches in day-to-day wear, fewer and fewer young people are interested in learning how to actually make them.

Meanwhile, says Jarmon, Americans hunger for more community, something he couldn’t help but notice after returning to Houston in 2010. “From the earliest days of our being in this country, there was a history of substantive group activity: working on something for the common good,” he says. Quilting bees, for instance. Raising barns. ”People would get together to build their communities their homes, places for performance. There is a yearning for that to happen again.” Beading, a relaxed, sociable craft that encourages conversation, could give Houston residents a taste of those communal interactions, Jarmon thought.

The question was how to combine the traditions of one country with the needs of another. It took two years of fundraising, and months of political wrangling by the project’s South African director, Bulelwa Bam, to launch Jarmon’s answer: bringing master beaders from South Africa to collaborate with U.S. volunteers on a community beading project.

That project was 360 Degrees Vanishing. With it, the South African beading tradition could be seen and appreciated by a new audience. Meanwhile, the residents of Houston could not only observe but experience first-hand how bead by bead, and person by person, community members working together can craft a monumental fabric.

Bulelwa Bam, Mvuzo Ntlantsana, and Joyce Kelele in traditional South African garb. Photo by Bulelwa Bam.
Bulelwa Bam, Mvuzo Ntlantsana, and Joyce Kelele in traditional South African garb. Photo by Bulelwa Bam.

Inside Art League Houston, Bulelwa Bam strolled thoughtfully around a worktable where her colleagues were beading. Bam, who is also a beader, works with the Eastern Cape Provincial Arts and Culture Council in South Africa and organized the South African side of 360 Degrees Vanishing.

Around the table sat seven Houstonians – three adult women and four young girls – and two South Africans, one a young man, the other a middle-aged woman. All were stringing wires through gumball-sized translucent beads. The South Africans strung their beads calmly, chatting with newcomers. The American women, one black, one white, one Asian, looked diligent. The children worked with fanatic absorption.

On the table lay laptop-sized rectangles, each a grid with slender rods on which to attach rows of beads. Today’s beads were green and white, but the final project will include orange and burgundy ones as well, to reflect colors found on the South African flag.

“She’s got it,” Joyce Kelele, the female South African beader, observed. She was referring to one of the young Houston girls who, without asking for help, had aligned two beads, threaded them with wire, looped the wire onto the grid, rethreaded both beads, and pulled it all straight to make an anchor for a new row. The child grinned cockily.

“I didn’t need to be shown twice like you did,” she told her mother.

Kelele smiled. “It’s true,” she commented. “Young people are faster learners at this than adults are.”

Zoliswa Mkangaye (left) gives beading tips to volunteer Zoe Jackson. Photo by Bulelwa Bam.
Zoliswa Mkangaye (left) gives beading tips to volunteer Zoe Jackson. Photo by Bulelwa Bam.

It was that fact that helped convince Bulelwa Bam that beading and social activism could be linked.

Bam, who grew up in South Africa’s Eastern Cape, taught herself beading after watching her mother collect spectacular examples of beadwork throughout her childhood. As an adult, she spent years as a child welfare worker. She often investigated cases of abandoned babies.

“Each baby,” Bam says, “reflected a public health problem. The mother is a young person who came from the village to earn a living, who got pregnant or likely was raped. Maybe she returned to the village with the virus,” that is, HIV. Like a string of beads, each of these problems is linked, says Bam. “There is a whole chain.”

Bam’s solution: Help girls avoid the risks of the city by training them to bead in their own communities

“I made the connection that would keep them there,” Bam says. “They needed something to earn a living, something creative they could do with their hands, and something to let themselves know: This is my culture. This is my identity.” Today, as manager of her region’s governmental Arts and Crafts Hub, she supports traditional arts and navigates political waters to back projects such as 360 Degrees Vanishing. And she sets up classes so village girls can learn to bead.

Panels of beads finished, stacked, and waiting to drape over Art League Houston. Photo by Juan Islas.
Panels of beads finished, stacked, and waiting to drape over Art League Houston’s headquarters. Photo by Juan Islas.

As meticulous as the beadwork has to be, once the volunteers get the hang of it, the work takes on a life of its own. By early September more than 70 Houstonians had come out to string beads with the South Africans. Some 225 panels had been finished, with more than 1,000 yet to go. Fingers knew what to do automatically, and the pleasantness of the project lent itself to social interaction.

That’s why Jarmon and so many other beaders compare the tradition to that of the American quilting bee. It’s also a bit of a metaphor, Jarmon says, for the unexpected social connections he expected his project to have in Houston.

It’s happened already. The beaders, most of whom are staying in private homes or in housing provided by Art League Houston, did their first few weeks of beading at Rice University. To get there, they had to take a bus from Montrose.

“The drivers didn’t necessarily know what [the beaders] were doing, but a lot of time they were in their traditional dress, and [the drivers] got to know them,” Jarmon says. “They knew [the beaders] were on the way to work every day. They liked them. They held the bus for them if they were late.”

Not all of the beaders’ Houston experiences have been as heartwarming. In August, Bam was detained by a River Oaks police officer as she walked to the house of her host, who happened to be out of town. Although he did not accuse her of anything, the officer questioned why Bam was in the neighborhood and only released her after calls from her host and from Jarmon.

Shaken and frustrated, Jarmon nevertheless sees potential in the event to craft something useful. “Why not invite the River Oaks officers to bead with us?” he says. “This incident can be part of our piece. Until people come out of the different zones they are in, we will continue to think in terms of the ‘other.’ Beading is something tactile, something physical, shared work. I just think if you help someone to build their house, you’re not going to want to burn it down.”

Volunteer beaders at work and communing at Art League Houston. Photo by Juan Islas.
Volunteer beaders at work, and communing, at Art League Houston. Photo by Juan Islas.

One response to “The Venerable Bead: South African Beaders Help Craft a Massive Montrose Artwork”

  1. Darlene Abdouch

    How can I get information on volunteering for beading?

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