A closer look at ‘Ubuhle Women,’ at the Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum

December 19, 2013

Tiny beads can have a massive impact. Take the African art of ndwango, in which colored glass beads are hand-stitched onto black canvas, forming shimmering works of art. “Ubuhle Women” at the Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum, showcases both this stunning beadwork and Ubuhle, the all-female artists’ community in South Africa that created it. Ubuhle (the word means “beauty” in the Xhosa language) was founded in 1999 to help women achieve financial independence through ndwango. The exhibit’s centerpiece is the 2009 work “African Crucifixion,” a seven-panel piece by seven artists. In it, the women depict their own journey — from pain and poverty to hope — using trees representing Christ’s suffering, death and resurrection. “The story of creating this piece,” says co-curator and Ubuhle co-founder Beverly Gibson, “is also the story of their lives.”

The top left panel of the roughly 15 foot by 24 foot work shows a storm brewing, bringing the promise of both destruction and renewal. It’s symbolic of South Africa’s slow, often-violent move to democracy.

The “Tree of Destruction,” on the left, reflects the artists’ experiences before coming to Ubuhle. “There was devastation, no hope, AIDS, drought,” Gibson says. (You can see AIDS ribbons in the middle left panel.) It also represents Christ’s suffering.

Christ’s cross, in the center, is the “Tree of Sacrifice.” At its foot are Mary, Jesus’ mother, and John, one of his disciples. Before his death, Jesus told Mary and John to treat one another as mother and son. This moment has special resonance for the women of Ubuhle, Gibson says: because many of them have lost relatives to HIV/AIDS, they have formed blended families. The panel is the last major work of Thembani Ntobela, who died of AIDS-related causes soon after finishing the piece.

Immediately to the left of the cross is a rainbow, signifying the birth of democracy and the “rainbow nation” in South Africa. Immediately to the right are tears, signifying the country’s rough transition after the first elections.

The “Tree of Life,” on the right, is surrounded by native wildlife and plants symbolizing fruitfulness and prosperity. In the context of the crucifixion, it is Christ’s resurrection.

Anacostia Community Museum, 1901 Fort Place SE; through Sept. 21, free; 202-633-4820.

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