About Maasai Beadwork & Jewelry
Throughout the world, ethnic groups are characterized and identified by dress and ornamentation. The Maasai are, perhaps, one of the most widely recognized people in terms of fashion and decoration, sporting bright colors, intricate patterns, and jewelry that dangles, jingles, and catches the eye. The Maasai conjure up popular images of young brides weighted with beaded ornamentation, numerous, collar necklaces that rhythmically move when they dance, headdresses that drape and accent the facial features, and brightly colored bangles wrapped tightly around forearms. However, while the Maasai have become widely recognized for their beaded ornaments, few westerners have taken the time to understand the history, symbolism, and social meaning of the craft.
Maasai Beadwork & Jewelry History
Beadwork became increasingly popular after 1900when the Maasai began trading with Europeans in nearby Kenya and Tanzania for beads made out of glass and plastic, but it has always been an important aspect of their culture. Traditionally local raw materials such as seeds, skins, copper, bone, gourd and wood were used in the craft. Maasai women have always sat together between their daily tasks of looking after the children, milking the cows, cooking, and constructing homes and animal pens to sit together and make beaded jewelry. To this day beadwork is an important means through which women demonstrate their social understanding and creative capability.
Maasai Beadwork & Jewelry Significance
Jewelry is created mostly for its beauty, which is a very important aspect of Maasai culture. But jewelry is also created and given in the Maasai community to signify special relationships, such as a young couple engaged to be married, or on special occasions, such as the celebration of a successful lion hunt, or worn for one of many ceremonies, like the naming ceremony, or the warrior ceremony, which indicate a rite of passage in the life sequence of the Maasai.
Maasai Beadwork & Jewelry Design & Color Meanings
If a woman constructs a piece of jewelry that is awkward or unappealing, the other women might tease her and quickly point out the flaws in her work. In this way, women learn the rules of the aesthetic eye. This is essential because the color combinations and patterns in Maasai beadwork rely on contrast and balance to create pieces that are eye-catching. Colors also reflect important concepts and elements in Maasai culture. Because the Maasai are traditionally a pastoral people, much of the color symbolism relates to cattle. Red, for example, signifies danger, ferocity, bravery, strength, and especially unity, because it is the color of the blood of the cow that is slaughtered when the community comes together in celebration. Blue is important because it represents the sky which provides water for the cows; and green is important because it represents the land which grows food for the cattle to eat. Green also represents the health of the Maasai community because there is a local plant called olari which grows tall and plentiful, as the Maasai hope they will too. The gourds that hold the milk that are offered to visitors are colored orange, and so this is the color of hospitality. Yellow also suggests hospitality because it is the color of the animal skins on guest beds. Because white is the color of milk, which comes from a cow, considered by the Maasai as a pure and holy animal, white represents purity. White also represents health, because it is milk that nourishes the community. Black represents the color of the people but more importantly the hardships we all go through in life. It suggests that difficult times occur with everyone because those difficulties are part of the same, natural sequence of life.