ACCENT OF THE MONTH OF JULY 2017
WEDDING COLLAR, THE MAASAI TRIBE (KENYA, TANZANYA)
METAL, BEADS ( 40 cm õ 40 cm õ 0,5 cm ), Inv.¹ A.c. 485
The people of the Maasai tribe (some 350,000 in number) are typical nomadic herders, known as brave and proud warriors and for the magnificent physique of their tall bodies. Guided by the strong religious belief that God created cattle especially and exclusively for them, they have a deep, almost sacred, relationship with the animals. It is thought that their ancestors originated in North Africa. In search of fertile lands to graze their numerous herds, they began to migrate south along the Nile Valley in the middle of the 15th century and settled in the northern parts of today’s Kenya. At the end of the 19th century, they succeeded in taking over vast territories in the region of East Africa, reaching Tanzania. Today, they inhabit the lands bordering Lake Victoria to the west and Mount Kilimanjaro to the east. Irrespective of civilisation and western cultural influences, the Maasai continue to adhere firmly to their traditional way of life and to the preservation of their long-standing cultural heritage.
The Maasai are well known for making beautiful and colourful decorative beaded jewellery, including necklaces, collars, pendants, wristbands and ankle bracelets, earrings, headbands and belts. Both women and men adorn themselves and wear them during important rituals, significant occasions and celebrations. These vibrant ornaments are an essential element of wedding costumes and the military outfit of the moran warriors. These impressive exemplars imply a more complex context, as they are the fruit of an important cultural practice of great significance and symbolism for the community.
The creation of this specific art is a priority for the women. It is their duty to learn the craft well and constantly to improve their skills. For Maasai women, handmade jewellery is a way to show their understanding of social community and to demonstrate their creative abilities. They follow strict rules in modelling individual details and in the use of colours. The complexly structured motifs are characteristic of different age groups and identify certain stages of transition in life. According to the shape, the pattern and combinations of the multicoloured beads of the adornments, the people of the tribe can deduce the exact age of those wearing them, their marital status, the sex of their children, and how many and what animals they own.
The tradition of making Maasai jewellery dates back hundreds of years. In the past, women used natural materials to create their traditional ornaments—dried grasses, adhesives, dyes, clay, wood, bones, seeds and shells. Although beads were already known to the Maasai from the Arabs and from Eastern India as early as the 18th century, they were not used until the 19th century. Later, as a result of the development of trade with the Europeans, glass beads became accessible to Africans. Their colours, enhancing the complex motifs of the adornments, bear a particular symbolic meaning for the Maasai:
red – the blood of the sacred animals, bravery, strength, the solidarity and unity of the community in meeting big everyday challenges
blue – the sky and the gods, energy and food, the water needed for pastures and by people
green – the fertility of the land, prosperity, and health
black – the people and all the hardships they need to overcome
white – health, peace, and purity
yellow – the sun that sustains life and growth
orange – warmth, friendship, generosity, hospitality.
An iconic and popular type of adornment of the women of this tribe is the so-called wedding collar. This is a large, flat circle made of strings of beads arranged one inside the other. Every aspect of the collar represents some feature of the bride’s community. As a whole, the collar is an original map of the village where she lives. In their layout, Maasai villages follow the shape of a circle, with a fence around the outer perimeter. On the edge of the collar, this is represented by a thin ring of alternating dark and light beads. Each of the geometric shapes embodied in the adornment shows the corresponding number of houses. The circular hole in the middle of the disc represents the centre of the village, where the animals are driven in at dusk, after grazing. There may be straight lines running radially at intervals around the ring. These indicate each family`s private entrance to the village compound. The number of beaded strings hanging from the disc indicates the quantity of livestock that will be given as a dowry to the bride’s family. During the dance the women use the movement of the disc to display their grace and flexibility. In most beaded jewellery of the Maasai, the design of each piece is unique both to the maker and the person wearing it.