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Africanist Scholars Use Video to Show Beads' Significance

Kearsley Stewart and David Schoenbrun, both Africanist scholars, have created video about the significance of glass beads in African society to give their lectures a new dimension.

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November 14, 2006

Visual media can be a powerful teaching tool to bring foreign cultures to life.

Kearsley Stewart and David Schoenbrun, both Africanist scholars, have created video about the significance of glass beads in African society to give their lectures a new dimension.

They share a fascination, both personally and academically, with glass beads and their significance.

For Stewart, senior lecturer in anthropology and medical anthropologist with research expertise in HIV/AIDS and global health, interest in beads began when she was a teenager and discovered Italian millefiore glass beads in a craft shop in Massachusetts. She started collecting beads and designing jewelry. After college her research interests were stimulated when she lived in Ghana and saw beads in the marketplaces and at local ceremonies.

“Beads are a central component of personal expression for both men and women in Ghana,” says Stewart. “They're also an important part of the Ghanaian economy. During an economic crisis, people will trade their heirloom beads for cash.”

Schoenbrun, associate professor of history, is attracted to using a material item as a symbol to explore cultural and economic history; and glass beads, ubiquitous in many West African communities, are a powerful symbol. He is developing a new course for 2007-08, “African Consumers and African History,” which will incorporate the study of glass trade beads as a new approach to African history.

The two faculty members traveled to Ghana and Italy in 2003-04 and shot 24 hours of interviews with bead makers and traders, scenes of bead markets and bead collections or 'treasures.' With support from Janine Spencer, Matt Taylor and Mark Schaeffer of the Multimedia Learning Center, they condensed the footage into a 90-minute video archive. Stewart then created a unique pedagogical innovation by replacing the traditional library-based term paper for her “Peoples of Africa” class with this digital resource.  Her goal was to challenge students' visual stereotypes of Africa and to give them training in digital media skills.

Stewart will use the video again in her winter-quarter 2007 course partially to dispel negative cultural and visual stereotypes students often bring to class. “When students think of Africa, they picture economic crises, war and famine,” she says. “Discussing beads and viewing the video bring a balance to their vision of Africa.”

For the final course project, students use the video archive to create three-minute video essays of their own interpretations of the meaning of glass beads in African culture. Although they use the same source material, students develop a wide variety of topics which focus on different issues: for example, gender, culture, or the business of selling beads. Titles have included “Inheritance and Capitalism in Ghanaian Bead-making,” “Gender Roles in the Ghanaian Bead Industry” and “Consumption in African History.” (Student video projects can be viewed on-line at: http://faculty-web.at.northwestern.edu/anthropology/stewart/ghana.htm)

Harlan Wallach, architect for media technologies, in Northwestern_s Advanced Media Production Studio (NUAMPS), a unit within NUIT, is working with Stewart and Schoenbrun on a larger video documentary project about one of the professors' main research interests, the heraldic chevron bead. These beads, with their complex zigzag design, were first produced in Venice, Italy, in the late 15th century. Also made in Africa, they are among the most highly prized of all beads, worn by chiefs and wealthy village elders and used in religious ceremonies.

The chevron bead has a long history of significance in Europe, Africa and North America, says Schoenbrun. “Hand-crafted glass beads, used by Native Americans, West Africans and Europeans are symbols of beauty, desire, influence and power. The beads -- their colors, patterns, sounds they make when clicking together -- connect communities all over the planet.”

Wallach's collaboration with Stewart and Schoenbrun resulted in an award-winning video about an American craftsman of glass beads. The documentary focuses on artist Art Seymour of Reno, Nevada, who crafts glass chevron beads from hand-pulled canes of layered, colored glass in his desert workshop and sells them on the Internet and at festivals.

Stewart and Schoenbrun interviewed Seymour in his Nevada studio about his creative process and philosophies on the culture of the prized bead. Seymour, who has created a 13-layer cane bead -- most chevron beads consist of seven layers -- describes his “heavy metal jazz beads” as the “physical manifestation of the abstract concepts of color and light.”

Titled “Art Seymour: Solo Performance,” the 25-minute film directed by Wallach, shot by Stefani Foster and Jeremy Brunjes, and edited by Brunjes, was screened at the Idaho Panhandle International Film Festival in August 2006 and won the Soaring Eagle Award for Best Documentary and awards for best cinematography and best editing. It took home more awards than any other film at the festival.

Using an innovative proprietary software program developed by NUAMPS, Stewart and Schoenbrun will use the documentary to link Northwestern undergraduates with students at the University of Legon in Ghana to discuss the film in real time.  This will facilitate a conversation between American and Ghanaian students about the nature of exchange relationships during the epochs of Atlantic and Saharan slave trading.

The short documentary is the first segment of a larger multimedia project Stewart, Schoenbrun and Wallach are creating about the historic trade in handcrafted glass chevron beads between Europe, Africa and the Americas.

To complete the longer documentary on the global history of glass trade beads, Stewart, Schoenbrun and Wallach will travel to Ghana in April and May 2007 and later to Italy and locations in north America to interview two other glass bead makers and place these modern craftsmen in a historic context that dates back to the 16th century. The trip to Ghana is supported by funds from the Committee on Interdisciplinary Research in the Arts (CIRA), NUAMPS and the departments of anthropology and history.  The Hewlett Fund supported the classroom innovation for Stewart's “Peoples of Africa” class.

The documentary will feature glass bead production in Italy, trade to west Africa, contemporary glass bead production and use and Ghana, and the glass bead as an art object. The compelling theme of the documentary -- and as classroom lesson -- is the way people on three continents value the same object in different contexts -- historically, culturally, economically and artistically.