Mauritanian Powder Glass (Kiffa) Beads
The following is excerpted from African Beads: Jewels of a Continent, by Evelyn Simak with Carl Dreibelbis and an introduction by Lois Sherr Dubin. Copyright 2009 by Africa Direct. Reproduced with permission.
The term “Kiffa bead” is a fairly recent name coined by bead collectors from the United States during the second half of the 20th century. The name is derived from the town of Kiffa, a bead making center situated in south central Mauritania. Kiffa beads represent a bead type unique to Mauritanian culture and society.
Mauritania used to be part of the ancient Ghana Empire, which lasted from 750 to 1240 CE and encompassed southeastern Mauritania and parts of Mali, growing rich from the trans-Saharan trade in gold, ivory and salt. Koumbi Saleh is believed to have been the empire's capital. Its ruins are located near the town of Kiffa. Glass beads are still being found along the old trade and pilgrim routes and in the sand dunes that now cover the ruins of Koumbi Saleh.
Kiffa beads were made in small numbers, on commission, for friends and family members or for personal use. The craft of making these beads was considered to be a gift from God and the beads were made in His praise. Every line, dot, circle and triangle mirrored the bead maker’s personal interpretation of the universe. Magic, as well as happiness and other emotions, were incorporated and infused in the process of making a bead, always accompanied by a ritual of prayer and incantation. Mauritanian women strongly believed in this magic which offered them powerful protection from the “evil eye,” illness and other mishaps. They also considered their beads to be objects that transmitted emotions such as joy and tenderness. Special beads were given names, and their wearers believed that to place such a bead under one’s tongue was the most effective method of transmitting its magic to one’s body.
The process of making Mauritanian wet-core powder glass Kiffa beads involves the crushing of glass into fine powder and mixing it with saliva or gum arabic as a binder. In order to build a core for a triangular bead, two blades of stiff grass were fastened together to form a cross shape. The moistened crushed glass was built up around this grass support in a triangular form and smoothed with a razor blade. Decorative patterns were applied with fine needles, using slurry that consisted of finely crushed glass, which was moistened with saliva, or a few drops of gum arabic mixed with water. The beads were then covered with a small tin such as a sardine can, and fired on metal plates or flat pottery shards, without the use of molds.
During the second half of the 20th century, environmental changes led to droughts and famine which forced many families in Mauritania to abandon their traditional nomadic way of life in order to survive. While Kiffa beads had become highly desirable objects for collectors in the western world, the art of making them was becoming extinct in Mauritania. Only a handful of master bead makers, all of well-advanced age, are documented from the 1970s, and reports indicate a noted lack of new apprentices who might have been interested in learning the technique in order to keep the craft alive. Hausa traders were combing the Mauritanian countryside to bring out whatever they could find, regardless of quality. However, as these beads were never produced in significantly large quantities it became increasingly difficult to find them, let alone to find perfect examples. Some traders resorted to offering beads that had been repaired in transit, some more successfully than others. Broken beads were joined together with glue, and damaged or chipped beads which had suffered from decoration loss were touched up with oil paint or nail varnish. Chips and missing chunks were filled in or replaced with a variety of materials ranging from resin and clay to plaster, and then painted.
The first attempts to supply collectors’ demands by producing new Kiffa beads were noted during the 1990s, and the first known organized group of bead makers to realize a potential for profit and external trade appears to have been the Cooperative Nasser. This group, believed to have consisted of a master bead maker and five apprentices, all located in the town of Kiffa, was founded and managed by a non-Mauritanian bead enthusiast and entrepreneur residing in Senegal. Inquiries to a French sister organization about importing commercial kilns have been reported, but by the year 2000 the group could no longer be located. More groups have formed in the meantime, and at present the number of bead makers working in the vicinity of the town of Kiffa is estimated to total about one hundred. Working from their family homes, the women are, in principle, adhering to the traditional methods of manufacture while using new source materials imported mainly from India and China. The glass is crushed in stone mortars or on old grinding stones, but where formerly only a few beads at a time were made per day, now up to one hundred small spherical beads are being produced in one firing process.
The first beads originating from this production were crudely executed and are often described as lacking all the attributes that make traditional Kiffa beads so attractive and appealing. Their brightly colored patterns and commonly mottled or lumpy surfaces lacked detail and gave evidence of poor craftsmanship. After almost two decades of this revival the question remains why contemporary Kiffa beads do not match the high quality and craftsmanship observed in traditional beads. Do the modern bead makers prefer creating new shapes, and applying their own, much simpler, designs, rather than copying the more time consuming traditional decorations of fine lines and intricate patterns? Or is it possible that the old art of creating such intricate decorations has been lost? As modern Kiffa beads are made to order and produced for marketing, it is possible that quantity might be getting priority over quality. Another explanation for the inferior quality of contemporary Kiffa beads may be the bead makers’ choice of source materials and tools. Whereas fine needles were once used for applying decorative patterns, present-day use of fairly crude wooden sticks hinders the execution of fine lines and intricate patterns. As changing ways of life have resulted in a change of values, the art of making Kiffa beads has ceased to be a form of worship and present-day bead makers may feel less bound by traditions and less restricted in their creativity. Finally, bead making today is a means of making ends meet in everyday life. Although the town of Kiffa, where most of the bead makers live and work, is the second largest town in Mauritania, the great majority of its inhabitants survive on the traditionally meager subsistence of Saharan settlements, and small scale production and marketing of beads provides but a modest, albeit welcome, additional income.
Photos: All photos were taken by Mark Donato, and are featured in the book African Beads: Jewels of a Continent
Top Three photos show traditional Kiffa beads
Bottom Photo shows Contemporary Kiffa beads
This book is available from Africadirect.com