A Walk Through The Art of Daily Life: Portable Objects from Southeast Africa

Pipe, 1800s–1900s. Lesotho, Southern Sotho people, or South Africa, Nguni people. Wood, iron; h. 37 cm. National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. (Museum purchase, 89-14-16). Photo: © National Museum of African Art, photography by Franko Khoury

Wooden staffs, antelope headrests, snuff containers, and intricate beaded creations are among the 70 pieces featured in The Art of Daily Life exhibition, on view at the museum through February 26, 2012. Taken together, these objects weave a story about daily life, culture, and worldview in Southeast Africa.

Echoes of past lives can be seen on several headrests, as wear from usage over time shows the functional role that these objects played in their owners’ lives. Headrests were cherished personal objects that travelers carried with them on the road. Because they walked long distances, travelers were often accompanied by staffs that provided support on wearisome journeys.

Several pipes are included in the exhibition, hailing from different peoples throughout southern Africa. The Xhosa people from South Africa used pipes to celebrate special occasions, and would pass these treasured objects down from one generation to the next. The Southern Nguni people of South Africa contributed elegant designs to the pipes, one in the form of an elegant woman’s body.

Vest, 1800s–1900s. South Africa, Mfengu people. Glass beads, buttons, cotton thread; 59.7 cm x 21.6 cm. Private Collection. Photo: © James Worrell

The Art of Daily Life exhibition contrasts these wooden objects with brightly colored, complex beaded designs. Glass seed beads acquired from European traders indicated wealth and were used by women to create intricate aprons, wedding décor, and even fertility dolls. Because using beads was seen as a manifestation of “pagan” culture, Xhosa peoples who converted to Christianity burned their beadwork to symbolize a break with the past. The mesmerizing patterns in the beadwork not only provide aesthetic decoration, they are also charged with cultural meaning. The Mfengu people are especially known for their colorful, geometric designs of blue and pink beads, as can be seen in the rare vest featured in the exhibition.

These and other objects featured in The Art of Daily Life tell the stories of travelers, wives, brides, and children who incorporated functional art into their daily lives and adhered to the underlying symbolic meanings of their creations.


The Cleveland Museum of Art is generously funded by Cuyahoga County residents through Cuyahoga Arts and Culture. The Ohio Arts Council helped fund this exhibition with state tax dollars to encourage economic growth, educational excellence, and cultural enrichment for all Ohioans.


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