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Mid-20th Century Iraqw Beaded Ceremonial Skirt, Tanzania


Mid-20th Century Ceremonial Beaded Skirt. Iraqw Culture, Tanzania

Iraqw beaded skirts, such as this example, are arguably the most elaborately decorated and attractive items of traditional beaded costume in the whole of Africa. Very narrow strips of animal hide have been sewn together to make this skirt, in which an upper band decorated with white, turquoise and red beads would have originally been tied around the wearer's waist. Multiple strands of leather tassels, adorned with glass beads, cowrie shells and white metal attachments, have been attached to the waistband with buttons.

During the mid-1990’s, after visiting Tanzania for many years previously, I decided to uproot and live in Dar es Salaam where I could focus on collecting tribal art from the whole of the East African region. It was during this time that I turned my attention to these beautifully beaded skirts. I had seen one on display at the unforgettable exhibition titled ‘Africa: The Art of a Continent’, held at the Royal Academy in London in 1996. Few examples of these skirts were known to exist outside Tanzania and only a small handful of them were published. I then decided to make it one of my main pursuits, firstly to find out if these skirts still existed in the villages and secondly, if any of the owners were prepared to part with them.

The Iraqw people are thought to be descendants from Mesopotamia, present-day Iraq, and migrated to East Africa via Egypt and the Nile 2000 years ago. This unusual historical background marks the Iraqw people apart from their neighbouring tribes in western Tanzania. I contacted a man who knew the Irawq territory well, who spoke the language and could be trusted. He would then go on trips of on average three months at a time travelling from village to village, mostly on foot or push bike, inquiring on my behalf about these skirts and if they still existed. With much difficulty and with a deal of expense, over a period of a couple of years, I managed to locate and gather a collection of these skirts.

Purchase from the traditional owner was mostly done by the exchange of cattle, so prized then were these pieces. The owners of such skirts were mostly first- or second-generation descendants and were still owned solely by women. Notably, not all families owned a skirt – and if they did, they only owned one skirt. It also seemed as though the skirts were no longer being worn in ceremonies, but rather, were kept as treasured heirlooms. Some of the neighbouring tribes, like the Barabaig, also had beaded skirts - but these were not the attractive ‘flat canvas’ composition seen in Iraqw skirts, with their wonderful free-flowing designs.

Shortly afterwards, it became nearly impossible to find these beaded skirts in the field. What followed afterwards was a flow of cheap copies made in the cities by craftsman without any knowledge of the meanings and signification of the traditional designs. The beads used were also notably newer and of different colours to the ones that were traded to Tanzania in the early to mid-part of the twentieth-century.

Iraqw beaded skirts were made by young girls during the process of their transition into womanhood. In Iraqw culture, Marmo and Haragasi are the two main ceremonies that usher youths into adulthood. Iraqw women had a rich tradition of initiation into womanhood. Marmo, the traditional name of the Iraqw secret women’s society, was outlawed in the 1930’s by the colonial administration, which considered such societies as a threat to their domain and control. As a result, this forced the practice of Marmo and its customs to go underground - but it survived and lived on. It is not known if the Marmo society is still in existence, and if the secrets and practices of its society have been kept and passed down to current generations. However, it is thought that some elements have survival and are still in practice today.

For their initiation into womanhood, young girls - from the age of 14 upwards - were secluded in a compound for a period of between 6 months to a year. During this time, they underwent a symbolic death and rebirth. In the later stages of their seclusion, the girls were fed rich foods – which did not include meat – so that they put on weight. Their bodies were wrapped in a woven mat-like blanket, and were subsequently oiled, perfumed and decorated. As part of this custom, the initiate would be taught the manners and the secrets of the exclusively female Marmo society. The rite also seems to have had an important purifying aspect, so that the young initiated girls were ‘reborn’ with a new innocence and dignity.

During this time, each girl turned a leather cape - which she had entered seclusion with - into an elaborately beaded skirt, in accordance with her own design. While in seclusion, the young girls were taught how to make the blank canvas of these beaded skirts by elder women.The design, however, was entirely the girl’s own creation – and therefore, each skirt is very individual.  

The use of white beads (awaak) is important as it represents light, clarity, purity and rebirth. Blue beads (manyaari) meant ‘if baby sheep comes the legs first is a bad sign so to clean the outcast they use the blue beads’, and red beads (datenii) were for the protection of a newborn child.

The skirt was a central part of the young girl’s ‘coming out’ ceremonial costume, and as well as having her skin oiled and perfumed, she would have worn an array of anklets, wristlets, bracelets and necklaces. The skirts were then passed down from mother to daughter, and so on.They are rare and highly valued, and as a result, are difficult to find and purchase.

Field collected in the 1990's     


Estimated Period: Mid-20th Century (Or Before)

L (Not Mounted): 90cm

(Click on images to enlarge)

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L: 90 CM
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