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Tuareg crafts cross paths with the world

Exhibition illustrates how the nomadic people maintain their culture in modern life.

January 31, 2007|Hugh Hart | Special to The Times

"A house is a coffin for the living."

-- Tuareg proverb


Romanticized by European colonizers as fierce, camel-riding warriors swathed in indigo veils, the semi-nomadic Tuareg people of North and West Africa for centuries coaxed a livelihood from their harsh environs in Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso, Algeria and Libya.

Thomas K. Seligman, director of the Cantor Center for the Visual Arts at Stanford University, says the Tuareg's historic distaste for permanent lodging makes perfect sense. "In their worldview, Tuareg live freely, with almost no stuff, in an environment that they know and control."

Yet in recent decades, life for the Tuareg has changed drastically, forcing an ever-growing engagement with the modern world. An exhibition at the UCLA Fowler Museum, "Art of Being Tuareg: Sahara Nomads in a Modern World," curated by Seligman, encompasses recent photographs and videos that reflect Tuareg society in the 21st century, complemented by 235 objects made from silver, leather, wood and fabric representing traditional craftsmanship.

Fowler Museum Director Marla Berns, who has studied indigenous Ga'anda and Yungur groups in nearby northeastern Nigeria, says the Tuareg developed their distinctive fusion of lifestyle and art as a matter of necessity: "It's the kind of aesthetic that grows up around cultures that are on the move. You can't carry a lot of superfluous material, because you're hauling it all around with you. There's a tendency to put a lot of attention on the adornment of the self, as well as the adornment of where people live and the objects they use." The material on display comes courtesy of the Tuareg's artisan class, known as inadan. Seligman and others believe the smiths, leather workers and artists most likely descended from Jewish metallurgists who migrated to North Africa after they were expelled from Spain by Christians in the 14th and 15th centuries. Their role within the Tuareg caste system is complicated.

"Historically," Seligman says, "the inadan were scorned and feared because they have a lot of unusual capacities that were seen as socially dangerous but absolutely essential. Nobody else would think of touching the material they work with, much less trying to do anything with it."

In 1971, Seligman became intrigued with the inadan when he met silversmith Saidi Oumba and his wife, Andi Ouhoulou, in Agadez, an ancient city in Niger that historically served as a caravan stop. Oumba and his family practice the "trembling hand" technique of silver smithing passed down from generation to generation.

Since then, Seligman has made more than a dozen visits to the region, including two collecting trips partly financed by the Fowler. After a four-month journey to Niger in 2001, Seligman conceived "Art of Being Tuareg." His goal: "To bring an understanding of the Tuareg people and their history as well as their dynamic engagement with the so-called modern world."

The show's older artifacts, on loan mainly from Musee d'ethnographie Neuchatel in Switzerland and Paris' Musee du quai Branly, include daggers and swords with intricately engraved hilts, camel saddles, teapots, tasseled leather bags colored in turquoise and red pigments derived from pomegranates, indigo, sorghum and minerals, along with Cross of Agadez jewelry bearing the mysterious symbol most associated with Tuareg identity.

The exhibition's contemporary component addresses the ways in which this once-isolated culture has responded to the encroachments of modern life. One video piece, for example, documents a desert wedding attended by nobles on white camels while other guests arrive in trucks. The wedding band does not rely on traditional goatskin drums. Instead they dress in Western clothes and play rock music on electric guitars, although they still belt out lyrics in the Tamasheq language.

"What's happening with the Tuareg is happening all over the world," Seligman says. "The region is experiencing environmental degradation and huge stress from a variety of geopolitical and global forces -- cash economy, roads coming in -- there's this kind of blending of other cultures."

"Art of Being Tuareg" demonstrates one connection, seen as largely positive, made between ancient tradition and the global economy with a display of Tuareg-produced bracelets, earrings, necklaces and other luxury items marketed to trendconscious consumers.

The silver wares, including several crafted by Oumba that now belong to the Fowler collection, reflect the way the Tuareg have modified tradition to satisfy a larger public. Some objects are made of gold, traditionally regarded as a taboo metal. Salt and pepper shakers cater to Western tastes. And items that would have once been anonymously produced are now signed by the artist to ensure authenticity in the face of knockoff "Tuareg-inspired" merchandise.

Says Berns, "The smith class found a way to capitalize on what they produce and haven't had any difficulty selling to an outside market. Even though they may not have the social status of the nobles, the inadan have a different kind of social status in our global society because they have a cash economy. They're now making money."



`Art of Being Tuareg'

Where: UCLA Fowler Museum, North Campus, Westwood

When: Noon to 5 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays, extended to 8 p.m. Thursdays; closed Mondays and Tuesdays

Ends: Feb. 25

Price: Free

Contact: (310) 825-4361;

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