MoAD | Press Room: Desert Jewels – Exhibition Description

Materials in North African Jewelry

Necklace. Marrakech, Morocco. Late 20th century. Coral, amazonite, metal rosettes, wool

The rich mixture of materials in North African jewelry reflects the varied cultures of the region’s inhabitants and their long history of extensive trade and contact. Imported materials from the Middle East, sub-Saharan Africa and Europe were lavishly combined with local materials of diverse color and form. It is not uncommon to find jewelry with elements, some more than two thousand years old, from Europe, India, ancient Egypt and Central Asia.

Used widely throughout Africa, beads have been imported and made locally for thousands of years. Beads of all shapes and sizes made of stone, coral, amber, glass, shell, old coins and later Bakelite and plastic buttons are combined in elaborate designs. These are often based on older jewelry forms handed down over generations. Amber, a fossilized resin imported into North Africa from the Baltic and beyond, was often strung with beads made of copal, a semi-fossilized resin found in West Africa. Gold and silver are metals of choice in North African jewelry. Because pure gold and silver were rare and restricted to the wealthy, most jewelers worked with alloys, sometimes made from melted coins, salvaged metal objects and discarded jewelry.

Many materials are thought to have protective and healing qualities as well as symbolic meaning. Silver is linked with honesty and purity, and when combined with certain stones it can heal select ailments. Red Mediterranean coral, associated with life-sustaining blood, is prized for its healing properties. It is worn to promote fertility and to prevent harm to children. Yellow amber attracts sunlight and deflects darkness.

The range of techniques also reflects the cosmopolitan history of the region. Jewish silversmiths living among the Kabyle of northern Algeria specialize in cloisonné enameling and also introduced niello. This technique, with Turkish and Central Asian origins, involves fusing silver, copper and lead to make a black powder that is then applied to a base layer of metal. Other techniques, such as filigree, granulation and engraving, suggest ties to areas as distant as Yemen, Syria and Somalia.

North African Photography

Young girl, North Africa. Unknown photographer, c. 1870. Original photograph on albumen paper from a collodion glass negative

Beginning in the 1860s, European commercial photographers set up studios in the major cities of North Africa. Photographs of indigenous “types” were produced for Europeans to take home to friends and family. The images were mounted on cabinet cards into the 1890s, when the format was replaced by picture postcards. Studios also sold larger prints of photographs, such as those seen here, which were acquired by European tourists, artists and collectors. Works from some of the most famous photographers of the time, including Étienne and Louis-Antonin Neurdein, J. Pascal Sebah, A. Cavilla, J. Garrigues and George Washington Wilson, are part of this collection.

Photographic studios published popular tourist views of North Africa, sometimes expressing a stereotypical view of the region. While these images depict the so-called Orient as it was perceived by Europeans, they also reveal information about daily events in 19th-century North Africa. Admittedly, some photographers staged their images with paid models and carefully placed props. Others photographed outdoor scenes and real people in their indigenous dress in an attempt to capture the vibrancy of North African life.

These original prints, many more than a century old, provide a valuable glimpse into 19th-century North African society. Featuring Imazighen, Arabs, Jews and peoples from sub-Saharan Africa working as merchants, water sellers, musicians and teachers, the photographs present the ethnic diversity and cosmopolitanism that still characterize North Africa. [more]