The Zulu peoples, among many other southern African cultural groups, have maintained a rich tradition of beadwork. The earliest commentaries describe pieces of bone, small horns, shells, and small pieces of polished wood and stone that were pierced to make "beads" and strung together as necklaces and belts. The end of the eighteenth century saw the introduction of glass and ceramic beads, as these items began to be heavily used in trade with Europeans. Initially, the use of these prized beads was restricted to Zulu kings and other members of the royal homestead. By the second half of the nineteenth century however, the quantity of beads that was being imported increased dramatically, making them available to the general population. Subsequently, the number and type of ornaments fashioned from beads increased significantly. Beads became the predominant material in numerous loin-dresses, necklaces, and belts, such as these examples from the Museum's collection.
Zulu men and women wore beaded belts, or umutsha, at the waist with a small quadrilateral piece of cloth attached to cover the pubic area. Both these examples feature finely interlocked patterns of glass beads on a cloth or leather backing. The belts also feature conical brass buttons as fasteners at both ends, which is a common characteristic of the northern Zululand beadworking tradition. One belt is decorated with a five-row chevron design of green, red, and white beads on a black background, while the other belt features a variety of geometric patterns in white, green, black, and blue. The Zulu, like other southern African peoples, developed a complex form of symbolism in the colors and color combinations of their beadwork. The significance of specific colors is often related to the name that is given, for example, ruby-colored glass beads are known as inkankane, which means "whenever I see you my heart leaps up in little flames." White is generally associated with love and, when paired with black beads, implies that even in the face of love there are many difficulties. These are merely generalized interpretations, as there is no direct correlation between color and meaning. Furthermore, this complex visual language has withered in recent times and subtle meanings that were once expressed in the past are no longer understood even among elder Zulu.
Zulu beadwork was and remains a woman's form of expression. Young women would make these beaded ornaments for themselves, their siblings and friends, and their boyfriends. Once married, they would also make them for their children and husbands. The message woven into such beaded items was thus also very personal and could only be fully understood by those close to the maker.