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Much earlier, mothers in Angola (Central Africa) put strands of ostrich egg shell beads

around a female baby’s waist, adding strands as she grew. Unmarried Turkana girls

in East Africa wear goat skin shirts adorned with ostrich eggshell and glass beads



Shaping Culture through Public Art

By Carolyn Warfield

Great Lakes African American Quilters Network


Artist Olayame Dabls has resisted the displacement of African people for as long as I’ve known him. Years ago this collector of African-derived material culture could articulate a germane Black psychology of ways developed by the Black man to negotiate and manipulate human existence and make sense of the complexities of earthly existence.  I was impressed with Dabls’ ideology as a young artist in association with the Detroit Chapter of the National Conference of Artists.

Hence, some twenty years later, Dabls’ aesthetic principles and visionary qualities exemplify intimate detail at work in the heart of an old urban neighborhood divided by a military highway, abandoned by Detroit enterprises, where gentrification has had no impact. Dabls’ effervesces of enthusiasm is self-assured; he realizes his purpose as an artistic visionary to preserve a neighborhood and the people in it. Olayame Dabls is the President and Curator of the MBAD/ABA African Bead Museum, 6559 Grand River Avenue, Detroit, Michigan 48208, 313-898-3007,

The MBAD.ABA African Bead Museum, a distinctly Black cultural configuration, buttressed by two notable African American churches, at the corner of Grand River and Vinewood, has luminous advantage as the three sites demonstrate affinities of religious faith.

The museum and complex are a swell of improvisational creativity. Dabls’ role in the 21st century green revolution translates positively as a town transforms itself into a diverse arts mecca. The technological rebirth of the Motor City in a down-turned economy affirms what a great city will become as design and performance initiatives spur the new urbanism.

Material culture refers to what people produce as goods to enhance human existence and well-being. As a visual metaphor, material culture is a means to communicate information about phases of the human life cycle. African material culture conceals and reveals knowledge of the life cycle through ceremonies and rites of passage; and as heritage, is demonstrated each and every day.

Selective Notes About Beads

Beads are fascinating from their significant function in the global economy and in cultural history. For millennia beads have described mankind’s attraction to commodity and trade. Archaeological evidence has uncovered African beads from most parts of the continent. Environmental factors, the availability and distribution of raw materials as well as exposure to Islamic and European culture and technology has influenced African bead making. Beads are made from many different materials such as eggshell, clay, mineral gemstones, glass, and gold, wood, metal and organic things, like nuts, seeds and teeth. Ghana’s Asante people fabricate gold beads from the lost wax casting process.

As adornment, beads are fine jewelry, regalia of ceremony and royalty and are used for medicinal purposes. Large quantities of beads have been buried in tombs of the noble and in African slaves’ coffins as veneration to the ancestors. As legal money, beads were bartered to buy humans, gold, and ivory during the Atlantic slave trade. Even a portion of New York was purchased with beads. Intrigued by a dazzling robin’s egg blue bead at the African Bead Museum during a recent visit, I discovered it to be Russian Blue, once traded for Africans during the African Holocaust. I was shocked when Dabls revealed such tragic information. A popular bead within Africa based on its symbolic reference to female fertility is the cowry shell. They first came to Egypt and the Arab trading center of Fostast near Cairo after the defeat of the Byzantines.

Through continued distribution cowries crossed the Sahara to western Sudan, to later be distributed by Dutch and English merchants through the Guinea Coast ports of West Africa

Ornamental and symbolic beadwork has traditionally announced ethnic identity, age group, marital status and station in society. Culture in Africa is dramatically linked to beads, probably more so than elsewhere in the world. Beads are the main component of everyday dress among Africans. Beads represent a communicative value system which proclaims religion, political affiliation and artistic attitude. Centuries past, when Portugal traded coral beads to Benin, kings made tunics and shirts with them. The beaded garments were so heavy they restricted the king’s mobility; thus he could not walk without assistance. For Ndebele women of South Africa, beaded aprons, capes and shawls attest to stages of female maturity.

Much earlier, mothers in Angola (Central Africa) put strands of ostrich egg shell beads around a female baby’s waist, adding strands as she grew. Unmarried Turkana girls in East Africa wear goat skin shirts adorned with ostrich eggshell and glass beads which are gradually lengthened as they reach marrying age. Among other East African patriarchal pastoral groups where arranged marriages occur, Sambura men think women do not have enough beads until their chins are supported by their necklaces. Girls and women garner multiple strands of tiny beads as beautification. For the Massai female, the focal point of adornment is an array of flat circular beaded collars constructed with leather and wire.

Detroit’s African Bead Museum

A joyful experience awaits anyone visiting the African Bead Museum. Stylistic analogies of design motifs arrest an observer’s attention to invoke respect and reverence. Murals surround the museum’s elaborate, custom-made exterior, emblazoned in a strikingly evocative universe of glass mirrors depicting African bead designs, animal totems and masquerade figures of West African Senufo culture. The mirrors incorporate the design elements of repetition, rhythm, and balance. The glass murals are a timepiece of light symbolizing self-reflection and reality of a transformative present. Over three thousand pieces of glass were affixed to the Senufo murals by Dabls and other local artists. Moreover, glass appears on the N’Kisi Iron House, the New World Stage, a community performance venue, and art work surrounding the Industrial Cemetery. In 2005, Dabls embarked on a community garden project in collaboration with the Greening of Detroit and a local university to teach community residents how to cultivate and preserve food. The primary mission of the venture is to provide quality food to local people. With hands-on gardening, preference is given to intergenerational residents as an activity that builds a strong community. 

MBAD/ABA African Bead Museum became a Michigan non-profit organization in 1994 when Dabls and a group of like-minded folks decided to merge with the American Black Artists (ABA) in 1999, originally founded in 1971 by Dr. Leno Jaxon. The museum is committed to serve as a resource center as it presents exhibitions, publications and public programs. There are currently four outside exhibitions for field trips, with an annual summer bead festival. Over time, Dabls’ relationship with African merchants has resulted in a comprehensive collection. The mission of the museum is to build, organize and preserve the beads, beadworks and textiles, and other indigenous handcrafted cultural artifacts which exemplify the range of material of the African people.

The tax-exempt institution earns income from shop sales, gifts and donations. MBAD/ABA must establish an endowment fund to keep pace with building a new museum designated for a space near the present one. The Department of Architecture at the University of Michigan designed the architectural renderings and models and will provide blueprints and building specifications for the new project.

Carolyn Warfield is an award-winning visual artist and writer living in Michigan.

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#16 - The Future Has a Past: Stories by J. California Cooper

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#20 - Children of the Street: An Inspector Darko Dawson Mystery by Kwei Quartey

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#8 - The Isis Papers: The Keys to the Colors by Frances Cress Welsing
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#12 -The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander

#13 - The Black Male Handbook: A Blueprint for Life by Kevin Powell

#14 - The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates by Wes Moore

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#19 - John Oliver Killens: A Life of Black Literary Activism by Keith Gilyard

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Blacks in Hispanic Literature: Critical Essays

Edited by Miriam DeCosta-Willis 

Blacks in Hispanic Literature is a collection of fourteen essays by scholars and creative writers from Africa and the Americas. Called one of two significant critical works on Afro-Hispanic literature to appear in the late 1970s, it includes the pioneering studies of Carter G. Woodson and Valaurez B. Spratlin, published in the 1930s, as well as the essays of scholars whose interpretations were shaped by the Black aesthetic. The early essays, primarily of the Black-as-subject in Spanish medieval and Golden Age literature, provide an historical context for understanding 20th-century creative works by African-descended, Hispanophone writers, such as Cuban Nicolás Guillén and Ecuadorean poet, novelist, and scholar Adalberto Ortiz, whose essay analyzes the significance of Negritude in Latin America. This collaborative text set the tone for later conferences in which writers and scholars worked together to promote, disseminate, and critique the literature of Spanish-speaking people of African descent. . . . Cited by a literary critic in 2004 as "the seminal study in the field of Afro-Hispanic Literature . . . on which most scholars in the field 'cut their teeth'."

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Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America

By Melissa V. Harris-Perry

According to the author, this society has historically exerted considerable pressure on black females to fit into one of a handful of stereotypes, primarily, the Mammy, the Matriarch or the Jezebel.  The selfless Mammy’s behavior is marked by a slavish devotion to white folks’ domestic concerns, often at the expense of those of her own family’s needs. By contrast, the relatively-hedonistic Jezebel is a sexually-insatiable temptress. And the Matriarch is generally thought of as an emasculating figure who denigrates black men, ala the characters Sapphire and Aunt Esther on the television shows Amos and Andy and Sanford and Son, respectively.     

Professor Perry points out how the propagation of these harmful myths have served the mainstream culture well. For instance, the Mammy suggests that it is almost second nature for black females to feel a maternal instinct towards Caucasian babies.

As for the source of the Jezebel, black women had no control over their own bodies during slavery given that they were being auctioned off and bred to maximize profits. Nonetheless, it was in the interest of plantation owners to propagate the lie that sisters were sluts inclined to mate indiscriminately.

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The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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Negro Digest / Black World

Browse all issues

1950        1960        1965        1970        1975        1980        1985        1990        1995        2000 ____ 2005        


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The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan  The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll  Only a Pawn in Their Game

Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for Slavery / George Jackson  / Hurricane Carter

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The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg

The Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804  / January 1, 1804 -- The Founding of Haiti 

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posted 14 January 2009 




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