The Powerful Bodies exhibit at the Fowler Museum displayed the personal adornments of the Zulu People. This exquisite ornamentation crossed over the lines of dress into art. Each piece in the exhibit was heavily wrapped up in a Zulu’s identity and their ancestry. It was as if, through the lenses of the hairpins, beaded coverings, ear plugs, and staffs, we were learning about specific people, not just the art they created.
Dress is tied deeply into identity, and certainly in the Zulu tribe, adornment conveyed status and essentially become a part of one’s body. Entwistle, in The Dressed Body, discusses how “through our bodies that we come to see and be seen in the world” (44). Dress imbues one “with social meaning (Entwistle, 36). The Zulu people are great examples of how dress is a link between the individual identity and the body, but also with the social belonging (Entwistle, 47).
The extraordinary staffs that were carried by both men and women were used to convey both power and status. They also “extended the body space of the person carrying it” (Fowler). This also demonstrates Entwistle’s theory that “space is grasped actively by individuals through their embodied encounter with it (45). The Zulus were active participants in how they used the space around them.
One of the highlights of the exhibit for me was the intricate beadwork. Beadwork was worn in amounts based on how much a Zulu could make or afford (Fowler). The amount of beads a man wore represented his prestige as a marriage partner (Fowler.) In Efrat Tseëslon’s, How successful is communication through clothing? Thoughts and evidence on an unexamined paradigm, the discussion follows the idea that clothing acts as a kind of language. Certainly one could argue that among the Zulu people, their adornments were a major form of communication about a person.
This was a beautiful exhibit, celebrating the beautiful traditions of the Zulu people.