Above: A 19th-century royal stool from Cameroon's Bamileke people. Courtesy Museum of International Folk Art.

While gathering an array of intricately decorated artifacts for Beadwork Around the World, a sweeping exhibit opening April 22 (through February 3, 2019) at the Museum of International Folk Art, curator Marsha Bol stood in Uzbekistan and fell under the thrall of a delicate face veil. Made for a woman, it consisted of black horsehair interwoven with clear glass beads. “The beads attract evil spirits into the horsehair, where they are trapped in the mesh,” Bol says. “For this reason, no woman will wear another woman’s veil. When you look at this veil, you would have had no idea about its special purpose. All of the objects in this exhibit have that kind of cultural information coded into them.”

The museum purchased the veil, adding it to its already mammoth assortment of international beadwork. Bol sifted through that collection for the exhibit and an accompanying book (Gibbs Smith, 2018) and worked out loans of other pieces from such places as Chicago’s Field Museum, UCLA’s Fowler Museum, the Roswell Museum and Art Center, “and some truly amazing private collections.” The resulting exhibit starts with beads made on an Italian island or a Czech Republic mountain that artists all around the world adopted. Even if their artistic traditions lacked a historic tie to beadwork, they each found ways to blend it into their communities’ unique designs. Examples abound from Africa, India, the Middle East, and Latin America, plus Native American peoples. (Pop next door to the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture for more stunning samples of beadwork as used on moccasins, in Stepping Out: 10,000 Years of Walking the West, through September 3.)

In 2015, the Folk Art Museum drew international attention with The Red That Colored the World, a ground-breaking exhibit about cochineal, a dye derived from a cactus insect that Spanish colonists carried to Europe, Asia, and beyond—and that is still used today. Museum watchers expect similar crowds for this exhibit, given the popularity of beads among everyone from award-winning artists to amateur craftspeople. (According to the Yellow Pages, Santa Fe alone has 13 places to buy beads.)

“Only an international museum can mount an exhibition of this scope,” Bol says. “Many of these pieces have never before been on exhibit. By focusing on a single medium—beadwork—instead of a particular tradition, we were able to mine the collection and look at it in new ways. This cuts across geographic boundaries and brings to light some very interesting objects” (505-476-1200, internationalfolkart.org).