Support Hyperallergic’s independent arts journalism.
PARIS — Wearable Treasures: Jewelry and Ornaments of the Maghreb is a pointed consideration of the psychic powers interlaced throughout North African women’s jewelry. The variety of forms and designs that the jewelry utilizes in creating rich streams of visual inflection requires acute attention, reflecting as it does the diversity of peoples and identities of the regions that constitute the Maghreb. The oscillating visual language of Maghreb jewelry usually hovers between abstract geometry and modes of repetitive graphic representation, done with such delicate precision that it may rise to the province of luxurious value. The jewelry’s function as a magical symbol often stems from this all-over sense of multiplicity within unity, even as the jewelry can also signal social boundaries.
The diverse powers of the many regional styles on display at the Institut du Monde Arabe raise the issue of the craftsmanship of ornamental jewelry out of the opinion that it is merely superficial decoration, into an arena of cultural and spiritual forces that surpass (while using) beautification in the interests of organic need. For millennia, North Africa — including the areas now known as Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, Libya, and Egypt — was a crossroads for the peoples of Western Asia, sub-Saharan Africa, and Europe. Starting well before the Christian era, Phoenicians, Egyptians, Romans, and Greeks mingled with the Amazigh people (also known as Berbers and thought to be the original inhabitants of the region, along with Africans from south of the Sahara Desert). Following the Arab conquest of North Africa in the 7th century, the Berbers gradually converted to Islam and over generations assimilated into Arab communities.
The ornamental designs engraved into Maghreb jewelry often evoke the natural environment, suggesting interwoven flowers, vines, animal tracks, the lapping of sea waves, or the rippling of fields of grain. The feeling of interlacing movement dominates. And this makes sense, as the rich mixture of designs and materials used in the jewelry of Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia in particular reflects the varied cultures of the region’s inhabitants and their extensive history of movement and trade. In North Africa, a woman’s jewelry — such as the Moroccan “Khamsat (mains) ciselées motifs” Hamsas (silver hands of Fatima) and the “Collier Khamsat” from Aurès, Algeria — has symbolic, magical meanings extraneous to its ornamental function, and the objects are used as charms and talismans to protect against evil eyes. Head ornaments, earrings, necklaces, brooches, bracelets, and anklets also possess functions at once magical, utilitarian, seductive, and decorative. Most Maghreb jewelry, by suggestively emulating nature’s cycles and rhythmic movements, propounds something of the repetitious cadences observed in our own intertwining movements when we engage in the pleasurable activities of music, dance, and libidinousness.
Of course, adornments also add resplendence, desirability, and opulence to a woman’s appearance. Women receive jewels when they marry and wear them as symbolic expressions of their wedded identity. But regardless of what social code is expressed, the pieces’ significant symbolic essence is also part and parcel with the lavish amount of time and patience encoded into each object, as we see in the complex geometric shapes of the multicolored piece from Grande Kabylie, Algeria, “Collier orné d’une boîte à talisman herz” (20th century). Its ornamental splendor charms the eye and also fulfills a beneficial metaphysical purpose by suggesting a dangling sense of continuance free from pressing urgency through the use of cloisonné enameling and hanging beads. Originally from present-day Turkey and Central Asian regions, cloisonné is a technique pioneered by Jewish silversmiths (descendants of the Jews who fled Spanish persecution beginning in the 13th century). Other techniques, such as filigree granulation and engraving, suggest ties to areas as distant as Yemen, Syria, and Somalia. Pendants made of colored enamels and precious or semiprecious stones are conspicuous. Streams of beads in all shapes and sizes are sometimes used, made of stone, coral, amber, glass, shell, and even old coins, as we see in the sumptuous neckless “Collier tlila orné de perles baroques, pendentifs en argent doré” (20th century) from Moknine in the Monastir Governorate area of Tunisia. The coins, frequently used in the production of Tunisian jewels, are believed to keep the evil eye at bay.
Much Maghreb jewelry seems to embody the human inclination toward repetition and reiteration. Some pieces, such as “Paire de fibules (khella) ornées de rinceaus et d’une khamsa – Or moulé et ciselé” (20th century), from Moknine, Tunisia, display floral arabesque designs full of piercing filigree inherited from Egyptian, Greek, Roman, and Byzantine traditions. The woven, ornamental design creates a repetitive, intertwining visual logic that is mesmeric; it ensnares the eye. Take a long look at the voluptuous “Grande Kabylie, Large Circular Fibula Tabzimt” from the Kabyle people of Algeria. This Tabzimt is a particularly glorious jewel that was once used to celebrate the birth of a boy. What it already always expresses here is an unequivocal notion of plethora. In ornamental jewelry, each piece is doubly conceived and doubly understood in terms of a private life blending into the ambient inner weavings of the tribe. It is for that reason that some of the jewelry is massively decorated with coins, such as is the sumptuous 19th century “Pectoral” piece from Nador, Morocco. In that respect, tribal ornamental jewelry is not (merely) decoration for the female body, but symbolic community interaction.
As we can see with “Paire de fibules en forme de rosace reliées par des chaînes garnies d’un pendentif ovoïde émaillé” (20th century) from Tiznit, Morocco, traditional Berber women’s wear is draped and held together with brooches (tizerzai) and a belt. As I observed in the marvelous Moroccan villages of Tiznit and Tata, such jewelry may be shaped differently depending on the local region, sometimes with ram’s horns on the sides (a reference to female fertility) or in spiral-shaped motifs (representing the eternal), as we see with the “Collier Tazelagt” from the Ahl Massa Tribe near Tiznit. Regardless, most Maghreb objects possess a fluctuating, ornamental adroitness that challenges static visual statements.
That adroitness is how and why much of Maghreb jewelry vibrates with a spiritually suggestive demeanor. Through the deployment of bounteous ornament and repeating linear motifs, Maghreb jewelry expresses the pulsations and throbs of our human heartbeats and repetitious breaths, of our copulating rhythms. The jewelry from this region is created through an exultation in rhythmic embellishment that functions somewhere between the reality principle and the pleasure principle. Its exultation is encoded within the winding motifs that are rhythmically repeated when used in a band or border or scattered rhythmically over an area through the all-over use of line. Some of this show’s best pieces, like “Parure de Tête” from the Ida Ou Nadif Tribe in Taounza, Morocco, exhibit a sustained rhythmic equilibrium based on uneven numbers. It and much Maghreb jewelry, laden with private and community conjuration, display a meaningful artistic code and spiritual language for those who understand its ocular tongue.
Wearable Treasures: Jewelry and Ornaments of the Maghreb continues at the Institut du Monde Arabe (1 Rue des Fossés Saint-Bernard, 5th Arrondissement, Paris) through January 8, 2017.