THE ELEMENTAL COMBINATION of bead and filament, threaded into waist ornaments, string skirts, belts and pubic coverings,represents one of the most continuously used forms of human attire and artistic expression in existence. In the hands of Kirdi women from the rugged Mandara Mountains of northern Cameroon,and adjacent regions of eastern Nigeria, Niger and southern Chad, this ancient form of adornment is the medium of visual poetry—small abstract compositions that offer eccentric and fantastical explorations of geometry, color, line and light.
THOUGH THE FUNDAMENTAL shapes are familiar, the improvisational, kaleidoscopic configurations of triangles, squares, diamonds, zigzags, and stripes take geometric design into a dazzling dimension of optical play. Working with minute differentials of color and texture—sometimes at the level of a single dot, a short oscillating line, or an erratic cluster or wedge—exceptional artists pattern intricate fields that shimmer with energy.Color fractures and shifts punctuate even orderly, symmetrical arrangements. Grids go askew, checkerboards melt and elongate, and lines quiver in a multiplicity of visual permutation and pulsating change. The innate sophistication of the style is epitomized by pointillist designs composed entirely of a thousand points of color, each generated by a single light-reflecting glass bead.
THE VIBRANT beaded cache-sexes (Dibul Kouana) are worn for dances, harvest festivities, ancestral ceremonies, and rites of passage such as nuptial celebrations and girl’s puberty rituals. Traditionally, the hipwide panel was worn only by mature, initiated women; the tiny “tangas” were made for young girls. Different styles identify a woman’s village or ethnic affiliation, her age, and marital status. Cowries strung at the end of the cotton fringes also reflect her social position. Like the bead apron itself, these imported shells are highly evocative of women’s fertility and vitality. The colorful seed beads, either imported from central Europe or produced in west African beadmaking centers, were similarly obtained through trade.
THE CACHE-SEXE TRADITION has endured among the more remote, animist Bana Guili people, despite being prohibited across Cameroon since the early 1960s. However, this material—the more dynamic, complex styles—has become increasingly scarce in recent years. Scholarship has yet to catch up, but these miniature masterpieces represent an essential strand of the African textile aesthetic. An aesthetic defined by women who have contributed a unique pattern language and geometric creativity to the history of surface design.
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