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Sophisticated Saharans

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Art of Being Tuareg' Reveals Beauty, Erosion of West Africa's Nomads

Imagine a world in which you constantly pack and unpack all of your possessions, where the floor under your feet is the vast sands of the Sahara, and where your traditional mode of transportation is a camel. But somehow, you make this extreme, rugged existence not only civilized and dignified—but sophisticated.

That’s what the nomadic Tuareg peoples of West Africa have done for centuries. Their fascinating, inspiring culture gets a close examination at the National Museum of African Art in a new exhibition titled “Art of Being Tuareg: Sahara Nomads in a Modern World.”

The display, located on the museum’s second sublevel, gives visitors a look at a romantic, nomadic way of life that is gradually eroding as more and more Saharan nations demand visas and passports, even from nomadic tribes that have wandered the same deserts largely unimpeded for centuries.

More than 200 pieces from public and private collections around the world—ranging from highly decorated items to documentary photographs to music to video footage—are contained in the exhibition. In one video, a modern-day Tuareg—resplendent in a fine tagelmust (or veil)—laments how society is limiting the Tuareg’s options. “ID cards can be problematic because they have no value in the desert,” the man says, pointing out that most Tuareg are animal herders. “Suddenly, we are told we can no longer live this lifestyle. That’s how it is everywhere—they want people to be sedentary.”

The exhibition reveals a stunning incongruity in the refinement of a tribe of peoples who constantly battle some of the harshest elements on earth. The Tuareg lifestyle is full of music, poetry and art, as the tribes’ highly skilled artisans produce jewelry, leather bags, cookware and other items of jaw-dropping beauty and meticulous attention to detail.

For instance, silver amulets worn to court good luck or ward off evil spirits by the loosely Muslim Tuareg are painstakingly etched and polished to a high shine. It hardly comes as a surprise that Hermès, the chic French couture brand, has incorporated Tuareg designs into an entire line of bags, pendants, bracelets and belts since 1993.

In Tuareg society, even an implement as simple as a wooden ladle is adorned with complex etchings and a dramatic, angular blackened handle that sits in sharp relief to the otherwise blonde wood. The exhibition’s wall text suggests that such design flourishes—contained on everything from the Tuareg’s saddlebags to their swords—helped to soften the harsh challenges of life in the desert.

The tribes themselves certainly aren’t soft. The Tuareg warriors are among the most celebrated and romanticized in world history. The French invaded the central Saharan homelands of the Tuareg tribes time and time again in the early 19th century and met fierce resistance. Massacres were common on both sides during the century’s first decade until the superior weaponry of the French military finally overpowered the Tuareg’s sleek and deadly swords. In fact, the sword is a revered instrument in Tuareg culture, and the exhibition explains how young boys are typically rewarded with a valuable sword of their own upon reaching puberty.

The exhibition does a good job of helping visitors inhabit the Tuareg world. One of the last rooms in the exhibition is especially inviting as it displays a tent—the woman’s domain—that the nomads call home in the desert. Standing before it, one is struck by the elegant efficiency of their lives. No space is wasted, no material encumbrance allowed.

The image stands in stark contrast to our own lives, which are so often full of cheap, inelegant materialism that does little to nourish our souls.

Art of Being Tuareg: Sahara Nomads in a Modern World through Jan. 27 National Museum of African Art 950 Independence Ave., SW For more information, please call (202) 633-4600 or visit http://africa.si.edu.

About the Author

Michael Coleman is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on November 29, 1999