Bonding through beads: UP Fine Arts student engages with homeless men through community art project

Posted on August 11, 2021

University of Pretoria (UP) Fine Arts student Sinead Page is using the art of bead-making as a bonding experience for occupants of Reliable House, a safe haven for homeless men who want to escape the effects of substance abuse. Reliable House, which is close to UP’s Hatfield Campus, has become a model of how students, university staff and the community can enrich the lives of others.

The bead-making activity grew into a larger outdoor, portable workshop after Page decided to make beads for one of her assignments. “Participants make beads while discussing what it means to be a community,” she said. “It started as an excuse for me to continue engagement [with the men], as I kept them company while they worked in the gardens, gifting a beaded bracelet to them afterwards.”

The beads are made from natural materials such as salt, flour and water, and every bead was made while participants were having fruitful conversations. “The conversations act as the primary art form – language as art – and these conversations are archived onto the beads themselves. While making beads, language often comes up as a lens through which we understand each other and the world. Phrases are transcribed and translated in multiple languages, to map how meaning changes.”

Page explains that the beads are installed as a coded version of these “love letters to the community”, often in the form of motivational phrases, given the setting. “Some of the codes are revealed as the words are written one letter per bead. The process of rolling the beads to expose the hidden meanings is an analogy for communication in this diverse city: it ought to be handled with curiosity and care. Some beads are also shaped based on conversation. An example is a set of red star shapes made by a participant while I explained that when the guys call me ‘sister’, I sometimes hear their pronunciation as ‘sea star’, because English is my home language and because of the difference in our accents.”

The third-year student plans to install the bead work at UP Moja Gabedi community project. “The beads will be an interactive artwork inspired by crossword puzzles. Participants can roll the beads to expose the hidden messages of love collected during the workshops.”

Page said that the purpose of the bead project is to provide people with a moment of reflection amid the buzz of everyday life. “Small moments of peace can make all the difference. The conversations are artworks in their own right. The encounters reconfigure our ways of understanding each other as we laugh together at all the ways language shape the ways we see one another. It is a bonding experience. The final installation brings attention to the art space at Moja Gabedi as one where we come together to make magic.”

The beads project has resonated deeply with Page. “In a time of isolation, the men at Reliable House have taught me what it means to be together. They show great kindness and have breathed a new sense of purpose into my craft. I take my practice more seriously than I ever have before.”

- Author Mecayla Maseka
Published by Hlengiwe Mnguni

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