For the Canadian Pavilion, Kapwani Kiwanga Considers the Hefty Historical Importance of the Tiny Venetian Seed Bead

At the core of Venice’s history is trade. The floating lagoon has, for centuries, served as a meeting place for different cultures, both in terms of the people who visited La Serenissima and the goods they brought with them. Another well-known history is that of the city’s renowned glass factory on Murano island. But what has been almost forgotten to time is how the production of one specific glass object, conterie or Venetian seed beads, has had a lasting impact on the culture today. True to their names, these glass beads are the sizes of seeds, but for centuries, beginning around the 15th century, they have been coveted for their rarity and beauty, especially the cobalt blue ones.

The material quality of conterie and their importance to trade during the Age of Exploration form the basis for artist Kapwani Kiwanga’s project for this year’s Canadian Pavilion, commissioned by the National Gallery of Canada.

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“Venice is built on many things, but trade is very much a big part of everything that surrounds us,” Kiwanga told ARTnews in a recent interview. “I’m interested in how the minute—the tiny bead—could be accumulated to such a monumental impact. In this case, it’s an aesthetic intervention, but it did have monumental impact on the whole mechanism of trade and interaction with in our now ‘modern world.’”

At the Pavilion, Kiwanga has installed dozens of dozens of strings of seed beads, each containing thousands upon thousands of beads, in the exterior and interior of the building. At the entrance, the blue beads are draped from the structure’s lintel; they gently sway in the breeze. Inside, variously hued beads range from yellow to red, orange to white. Kiwanga acquired these beads, which date to around the 1930s, from the stock held by a family that had produced them for generations. They were individually restrung in three studios in Venice, Berlin, and Montreal.

Installation view of the exhibition “Kapwani Kiwanga: Trinket,” 2024, Canada Pavilion, 60th International Art Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia.

Kiwanga became interested in the seed beads during a site visit to the Canadian Pavilion just over a year ago. At first she was hesitant to continue with a project related to glass, given how obvious of a history that has to do with Venice, but she felt that her project would ultimately “bring a new perspective or a new nuance or complexity to something that we think we already know,” she said. “Materials can be new documents or new archives, witnesses almost, of past moments to allow us to look at human history differently,” that ultimately can help us “understand our current situation really quite well from a different angle.”

With a team of researchers, Kiwange consulted various ledgers and other historical documents to learn more about the significance of the seed beads and the value they held hundreds of years ago. The objects were typically traded for gold, metals like bronze and copper, pigment from Pernambuco (Brazilwood) from the Amazon, palm oil used to lubricate machines during the Industrial Revolution, and even enslaved people. Each of these elements are represented in other parts of the Pavilion. Kiwanga has installed a new flooring, made mostly of white resin, which is interrupted by colorful undulating shapes, made from the deep reddish-brown dye from Pernambuco, gold leaf, and gleaming metal that rise up a few feet onto the walls.

They also feature in the four sculptures that are delicately placed in the Pavilion. The most evocative of these is Transfer I (Metal, breath, palm oil, beads), featuring a beam of black steel that is curved into a U-shape, with one end resting atop an orb of blown glass. In the center of the armature is a teardrop-shaped glass sculpture that is filled with ochre-hued palm oil; on the underside of the steel beam are several rows of black seed beads with rectangles of blue, white, and gray. The glass spheres, she said, act as “stand ins, a way to represent the essence of human life, breath.”

Kapwani Kiwanga, Transfer II (Metal, breath, beads), 2024, Installation view, “Kapwani Kiwanga: Trinket,” 2024.

During their height of exchange, seed beads were de rigueur on trading ships, at times acting as ballast for ships. Production of the beads quickly ramped up, and while the fabrication of the beads was a male-dominated trade, stringing them together was often the labor of Venetian women, whose essential role in this history is honored in the title of the Pavilion’s exterior installation: Impiraresse (Blue), the name given to these women.

Once the seed beads were traded, throughout Europe, in Asia and Africa, around the Americas and the Caribbean, they were often incorporated into each culture’s material culture, appearing in necklaces, bracelets, belts, and other forms of adornment, or embroidered into fabrics or incorporated into masks and dolls.

“For the Europeans, those beads were mere trinkets but then in these other communities, they were sought after,” said Wexner Center for the Arts executive director Gaëtane Verna, who curated the Pavilion.

This tension, Kiwanga said, between the “hierarchies of values,” in which the beads are seen as tacky knickknacks in one locale, while being highly prized to the point that they integrated into the material culture of another locale, is what led them to title the exhibition “Trinket.”  

Verna added, “Even if it’s a financial exchange, it becomes a cultural exchange also.”

In 2024, at a moment where paper money has long reigned supreme, it can be difficult to imagine just how a small glass bead could have had such an outsized financial role generations ago. That, however, is the point. Kiwanga said she considers them to be a form of architecture, one that is invisible but which connects us to the past.  

The pavilion then is a way to both visualize and materialize how the beads were “integral to the acquisition of wealth and [how] this exchange means they are what built these infrastructures in which we live in now,” Verna said.


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