The isimodeni style: traditional beadwork, Zulu trinket or South African sartorial tradition on Durban’s Golden Mile?

Published in: Anthropology Southern Africa
Volume 42, issue 2, 2019 , pages: 127–148
DOI: 10.1080/23323256.2018.1538735
Author(s): Rowan C. GatfieldDepartment of Graphic Design, United Kingdom


Beadwork is a well-documented aspect of the socio-political culture of isiZulu-speaking groupings in Southern Africa. Whilst scholarship on beadwork deals largely with the denotative and connotative value it offers wearers, this article’s contribution relates both to its commodification and apolitical value by confronting a general assumption that a beadwork style known as isimodeni [modern beadwork], produced as trinkets for tourists along Durban’s racially stratified Golden Mile since the 1960s, is an authentic representation of a Zulu material culture. The paper probes how traditional beadwork and highly decorated rickshaw carts and pullers were earmarked by tourism officials of the time as commodities that could serve a demand for colourful exoticism and accessible “Zulu” culture. Methodologically, the article draws on a visual analysis of beaded artefacts and photographs, in addition to ethnographic data derived from unstructured interviews with beadworkers on the Durban beachfront, to examine how a beadwork tradition transformed into a “Zulu” tourism commodity, and then transmuted into a nationalised form of ethnic identity and sartorial tradition.

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