A nomad all my life, I’ve been lucky to live, work and travel in several continents. Born in France, I spent my teenage years in Algeria just after its independence, during a time where many African liberation movements were based there—this really shaped my way of thinking. Then I studied public health in US universities culminating in a PhD at Tulane University in New Orleans. Later, I worked and lived mostly in Sub-Saharan Africa (Mauritania, Senegal, Mali, Zambia, and traveled at length to several other countries). I've since retired to the Pyrenees mountains, but I am still traveling quite a bit. I learnt a lot from people in those different countries. I feel I am a citizen of the world, with many homes and friends, comfortable everywhere, and still curious and learning.
The markets of many African cities were full of colourful beads, how can one not to be attracted by them? And they are easy to transport for a nomad like me, either around my neck or in suitcases. That was my first stage in collecting.
The second stage as a collector came along when I became conscious that beads give shape and colour to abstract concepts. That for some people, they can be the receptacles for certain invisible powers and spirits and that they are believed to have an influence in healing rituals.
As I said, my adventure with beads happened in two phases; while living in Senegal, a friend of mine offered me a couple of necklaces she had made. Later, one of the necklaces broke. That started it all! I wanted to restring the beads but I had lost some. So I went to the market in Abidjan to redo the necklace, this time with my style. This was the beginning of my adventure as a necklace designer.
Later, I discovered the hidden meanings of beads, and that was a revelation. A friend of mine, an elderly Senegalese traditional healer, M. Khalilou Dramé, told me one day “Tonia, this necklace you wear, I need it for my work”. I gave him the necklace, but I was astonished as I did not know beads were used for traditional healing. So I started documenting that function of beads with him and other traditional healers. I also got interested in how beads are used in some religions such as the Voodoo rite and the animistic Dogon rite. While living and working in Mali, I went to interview a few Dogon priests and consigned their interviews in a booklet I published ‘The Color of the Invisible’ so that future generations who will discover those beads in the earth will know their uses. I hope they will put them in a museum with a more meaningful inscription than: ‘Carnelian bead discovered in the cliffs of Eastern Mali, dated 2000 AD or earlier’, which is what we find today in most museums!
In the 1980s, I met other people interested in beads, for example Marie-José Crespin who lives on the island of Gorée in Senegal. She makes beautiful necklaces with antique and modern beads. She tells you about the history of some of the beads, I was fascinated by her art and the stories. Learning about the history of beads makes you look at them in a different way, they are not ‘ethnic’ or ‘exotic’ any longer; they become part of the cultural heritage of Africa.
I bought from anybody—at the market, in antique shops—while I was not very discerning yet. Vendors know the stories of ancient beads and to sell you imitations or new beads, they’ll tell you the stories. But by living there, I learnt to buy from trusted vendors and through other collectors who would share their contacts. Those trusted vendors would sometimes show me the imitation along with the real ancient beads, they introduced me to specialised books on beads. Then, I studied the books, I learnt from the web, and connected with other collectors worldwide.
I now collect two types of beads from Africa; those that either have a history—ancient glass beads—and beads that are used in rituals by African traditional healers, or in animistic rites. I discovered those functions of beads in West Africa, and I started documenting those uses, bead by bead.
Now that I am not living in Africa any longer, I restitute the knowledge I acquired there, on this aspect of cultural heritage, through museums or other shows and conferences. I’d like to transmit the idea that beads are not just beautiful objects, but they are part of the life of the people, they accompany them at important phases of their life, from birth to death, and during difficult times. In Occident, they are most often seen as ornamental objects, but they have meaning and are part of rites and rituals even today.
The ones that are used by traditional healers for preventing or curing diseases (note that I only document those uses, I don’t make any judgement on whether or not they work for preventing or curing diseases). Also, the ones used in animistic rites. For example, I interviewed several Dogon priests of the Binou cult in Mali: they cannot become priest until they find their bead! And they find it through trance or disease. It’s a red carnelian bead and the search for it is full of interesting myths. I put all those interviews in a booklet I published ‘The Color of the Invisible’. I thought it was important, as many of those animist priests are disappearing: one Binou priest told me that when he was a kid, there were 15 Binou priests in his village, now he is the only one!
Basically, I like beads that have a meaning for rites and rituals. Sometimes, the bead in itself does not have much monetary value, its importance in the ritual or the rite is what gives it its richness!
I learnt so much from Africa, now I am restituting what I learnt on beads there. One way for me to do that is in conferences and shows. In a small way, I try to contribute to preserve the cultural heritage of Africa, through transmission of a better understanding of the cultural value of beads, and to share my respect for the culture. When I give a conference, I provide a new light, a new angle on beads, a new way of looking at them. I remember being a little apprehensive giving my first conference to a group of Masters’ students specialised in African cultural heritage at the Higher Institute for Arts and Culture in Dakar. Most of them were Africans and had been immersed in beads since their birth, but they did not see beads the same way I did. So with my special focus on the functions of beads they suddenly saw beads in a new light, and it was really fun to exchange.
I also design and make necklaces with my beads. Each necklace is unique. I really enjoy the process of creating, replicating a design is less fun, so I don't sell them (or seldom). I am quite selfish. I might sell a few later on. For the moment, my daughter and I wear them and I love wearing a piece of history, full of mysteries around my neck.
I am writing a book with photos of my necklaces and for each one, I explain the history and function of some of the beads that compose the necklace. It’s fun to research and classify all that information. I hope to find a publisher soon.
There are many beads being created in Africa. Today’s bead will be tomorrow’s precious object, tomorrow’s ancient bead. Some new beads might replace ancient beads that cannot be found anymore in Africa.
Also, there’s a vibrant power of fusion in African art, an ability to integrate several aspects of a number of cultures to produce something genuinely African. This ability makes them create new beads which will probably replace older beads, even in their cultural functions. So, yes, do collect more modern beads as well!
It’s not necessary, some people have beads full of history but are not aware of it, they simply like the beauty of the beads. Some collect beads by country or continent and become quite expert at knowing all the beads to be found in those places.
If you’re a collector, you eventually focus on one aspect or the other of beads; for me it’s the different functions of beads in rituals and rites, others are interested in their history, some like to know about the different techniques to make them through time and space, for example.
A lot has been written about beads, mainly about the techniques to make them and their history. There are quite a few academic articles by archeologists who find beads in tombs or ruins. When I started being interested in the different functions of beads in the late 1980s, there were hardly any articles on beads. Now I can’t keep up with the literature on their history and archeology. It’s a good sign! Beads are coming out of the closet! And of course there are a few reference books we refer to often.
I belong to the Society of Bead Researchers, which is probably one of the best resources to link with other collectors. They publish a great journal ‘Beads’ along with the ‘Bead Forum’. I also subscribe to magazines such as ‘Ornament’ which sometimes publish in-depth articles about African beads.
I also get information from bead collectors’ sites such as Facebook’s ‘Ethnic Jewellery Discussion Forum’ or the ‘Ethnographic Group’, and those sites give you access to a forum where you can exchange with bead nuts like me from all over.
Of course, I like going to shows and museums where I think I might find new beads or information on their uses. If I can’t go physically, I visit them virtually. Finally, I keep in touch with people in Africa and my bead friends. I go back to Senegal, not often enough, but still, it’s always interesting in addition to being a pleasure.
Most museums don’t place beads in their socio-cultural context. They simply acknowledge where the bead was found, when, and what it’s made of. It’s as if you hang an African mask on the wall and don’t mention what ceremony it’s used for, which ethnic group it comes from, what their belief is about this mask. Some beads are thousands of years old and have traveled many continents before ending up in Africa, many are still part of rituals. They testify to the richness of the culture, and of the fact that Africa has never been an isolated continent, much to the contrary.
When I show my collection of beads in a museum or a gallery, the visitor is embarked on a trip through space and time. When he comes out, he won’t look at beads again the same way, he now realises beads are not just pretty objects to hang on the neck, they are part of the cultural heritage of Africa. He’ll wonder if that bead on that woman’s neck came from Mesopotamia, Egypt, or Ghana? And in what rituals it partook.
I just saw a show in Paris’ Museum of Modern Art called ‘Medusa, Jewelry and Taboos’. It was interesting to see how Europeans see jewellery first as belonging to the elite and how several art movements tried to democratise jewellery. A show on African jewellery would certainly take a very different approach as most jewellery, including beads of course, are part of everyday life, for everybody.
I’d love to see a museum creating an ‘African Bead Room’ as most museums have African beads in their collection already. But for the moment, they essentially focus on sculptures and masks from Africa, not on beads, so there’s much to do in that domain!
Educate yourself. We are lucky nowadays to have access to bead experts, books, collections all through the internet. However, a collector needs to develop a discerning eye, and that can best be done through practice of seeing, touching, handling beads. Go to bead bazaars to meet experts, learn, and see the beads.
But today, times have changed, and the ‘runners’ for African bead dealers have a harder time finding beads in the countryside, because old women have sold all their beads. Older beads are thus much more difficult to find. Moreover, since the late 1990s, terrorist organisations such as Al Qaeda find all kinds of manners to make money; one is to loot ancient graves and sell the artefacts, among which are beads. Also, in Iran for example, many museums were looted. So, one must be aware that some really nice ancient beads, museum quality beads, now being offered for sale in Africa might come from those lootings. It’s hard to resist for a collector. So I personally stopped buying ancient beads in the early 2000s, not to be tempted and not to be confronted by this dilemma; I don’t want to be part of that market. I also was lucky enough to have accumulated a great collection by then.
But there are still many nice beads for sale in Africa, which did not come from looting; they are not so expensive, not so ancient, such as those from the pre-European trade. Also, many collectors live in Western countries, and can buy from dealers. In terms of prices, be aware that some art dealers overprice grossly, so do compare the prices on the internet, or ask other collectors their opinion before investing too much.