For thousands of years, North Africa, a region that comprises the modern nations of Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, Libya and Egypt, has been a crossroads for trade and the transmission of cultural influences from the Middle East, sub-Saharan Africa and Europe. This exhibition explores the richly diverse artistic heritage of North Africa through the presentation of a group of extraordinary works of the jeweler’s art collected over the course of three decades by Xavier Guerrand-Hermès, of the Paris-based fashion empire. Including 93 pieces of jewelry complemented by 28 late 19th- and early 20th-century images by photographers who were captivated by the allure of North Africa, Desert Jewels (September 4 – December 5, 2010) features ornate necklaces, bracelets, rings, and earrings, many of which have not been publicly displayed before this exhibition.
“These objects illuminate the rich history of North African craftsmanship, which has been shaped by the imprint of many different cultural traditions,” said Timothy Rub, the Museum’s George D. Widener Director and CEO. “We are pleased to collaborate with the Museum for African Art to share this exceptional collection, which is remarkable not only for its quality and great beauty, but also for the rich insights it provides into the customs and cultural diversity of North Africa.”
Examples of jewelry created with combinations of silver, coral, amber, coins, and semi-precious stones demonstrate the shared aesthetic heritage of many North African societies, while variations in materials and motifs reflect significant regional differences. Brightly colored necklaces of amazonite beads or large amber beads, such as the Three-Strand Necklace made in Morocco, symbolize wealth, while pendants or enameled beads known as tagguemout are used to encourage the wearer’s fertility. Many of the works in the exhibition indicate regional and group identity, and many were designed to protect the wearer from harm. Hand-shaped amulets, or Khamsa, typically made of silver, are the most popular form of protective jewelry, and are sometimes engraved with prayers and inscriptions in Arabic and Hebrew. The jewelry on view in Desert Jewels also identifies its wearer. Women receive jewelry from their husbands when they marry and wear it as a symbolic expression of social codes and cultural identity. Some of the jewelry on view is unique to a specific geographic location: for example, the bold and graphic spiked silver bracelets known as “bracelets of the horns” (izbian n’iqerroin) adorn Aït Yenni women in Morocco, while Amesluh, bracelets with enamel decorations, are worn by Aït Yenni women in Algeria.
Beginning in the 1860s, European photographers seeking images of foreign locales, set up studios in the major cities of North Africa, photographing women wearing their extraordinary jewels, as well as documenting markets, ancient archaeological sites and landscapes. The popularity of these photographs, which featured images of Arabs, Jews, Imazighen (also known as Berbers) and people from sub-Saharan Africa, reflected Europeans’ growing fascination with the so-called Orient. These photographs came to the attention of Western collectors in the 19th century, when archaeological monuments in the region were being explored, visited, and, in some cases, pillaged. Important photographers of the day including the Scotsman George Washington Wilson, the Neurdine brothers from France, and the Turkish photographer Pascal Sabah, visited the region. Some of their images were used for postcards, while other remained hidden in little-known collections.