Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Be Inspired: Maasai Beadwork


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Kenya's Maasai peoples are renowned for their bodily ornamentations: their wide collars, ankle and arm bracelets, earrings, headwear, and brow bands - all beaded in a riotous array of coloured beads. And in the case of other Kenyan tribes, such as the Samburu, elaborate necklaces worn by brides during their wedding ceremonies and other important occasions, are traditionally handed down from mother to daughter from generation to generation.

Samburu Warriors

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According to a wonderful site devoted to the Maasai, their culture and their traditions (, "Beadwork became increasingly popular after 1900 when 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" (Source:, 2006).

Maasai Warriors

Maasai Warrior
Photograph by Africa Within

Photograph by Vadim Onishchenko

Photograph by Vadim Onishchenko

Photograph by Vadim Onishchenko

Elder Maasai woman

"Elder Maasai women: The piercing and stretching of earlobes is common and sometimes ornamented with beadwork. Decorative bead jewelry, usually made by women, is a significant part in the Maasai tradition."
(Source:, 2010)

All Corbis images below  
 are courtesy of:

Maasai bead necklaces for sale

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The colours of beads used is not random or frivolous; colours have a significance in Maasai culture

Red: "...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: "...represents the sky which provides water for the cows."

Green: "...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."

Orange: " the color of hospitality. [As] the gourds that hold the milk that are offered to visitors are [this] color[ed]."

Yellow:  "...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." (White has another meaning as well - a girl wearing a fringe of white beads on her forehead signifies that she has been circumcised) 

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" (, 2006). 

Bead bracelet made by Maasai women

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Agnes Papatiti, a Maasai woman
 wearing traditional beadwork which she practices

An example of the beadwork that Agnes Papatiti produces
for tourists in the Kajiado District, Kenya

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"Traditional Maasai Women working in groups participate collectively in stringing beads to form the authentic Maasai bracelets." (Source:  Image courtesy of:

Namunyak Baiera, a Maasai bride

Another lavishly beaded Maasai bride

Maasai wedding necklace

Samburu bride
Photographed by Annie Katz

Maasai earrings
Maasai necklace

A Maasai woman
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A Maasai girl wearing white beaded fringe on
her forehead indicates that she has been circumcised
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Maasai girl
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Maasai girl
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Young Maasai men in hunting gear

Maasai woman
Photograph by Africa Within

The following twelve images are all courtesy of:

John Galliano's debut at Christian Dior:
Haute Couture - Spring/Summer, 1997

For his January 1997 debut collection as appointed designer at Christian Dior, John Galliano chose Maasai beadwork by which to be inspired. With great aplomb, Galliano deftly combined the heritage of the House of Dior's eveningwear with the traditions of the Maasai's beaded patterns and colours to signal his arrival and create a new vision - as well as a new direction - at the esteemed House.


Recommended readings:

Maasai (2005), by Rennay Craats: Weigl Publishers Inc.

The Masai of Africa (2002), by Lisa McQuail: Lerner Publications

Maasai (1994), by Tiyambe Zeleza: The Rosen Publishing Group

Being Maasai: Ethnicity & Identitiy in East Africa (1993), by Thomas T. Spear & Richard D. Waller:
J. Currey

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