Category Archives: Museum Exhibition

Book Review: Berber Women of Morocco

Like a nomad gazing at the night sky, a ceiling of stars covered the main room of the 2014 exhibition, Berber Women of Morocco, at the Fondation Pierre Bergé – Yves St. Laurent in Paris. Each tribe’s jewelry and costume was sumptuously presented.

The accompanying book, with pages of orange and indigo-blue, is a tribute to women as the keepers of Berber, or Imaziɣn languages and traditions. (Imaziɣn means free-born.)

However, focusing on women distracts the audience from asking questions. The book is propaganda by omission: coffee-table scholarship, which veils the political confrontation upon which Berber identity depends.

A wedding necklace from the Souss area, which is made of amber, coral, amazonite shells, and pearls

The exhibition “is under the high patronage of Mohammed VI, King of Morocco,” whose mother is Berber. The King has gone out of his way to show sympathy for the Berber cause, as long as it was not political. Would it were that keeping culture alive were not political.

In 2011, the King spoke of “the plurality of the Moroccan identity, united and enriched by diversity… at the heart of which stands the Amaziɣ culture…” when Pierre Bergé opened the Musée Berbére at the Jardin Majorelle in Marrakech.

The Marjorelle Gardens, Marrakech

With courage, the King walks a thin line. Subordination to Arab monocultural demands is enforced all over Africa. The Arab identity and classical language are being imposed on ethnic groups of all colors, from Morocco to Sudan, even though they are already believers of Islam.

Head ornament made of flat-hanging pendants attached to a flat braided chain. From the Anti-Atlas Mountains.

In 2000, noted scholar Mohamed Chafik wrote the Berber Manifesto, signed by 229 prominent intellectuals. It accused their Arab compatriots of “ideological hegemony aimed at ethnocide,” and demanded political recognition of the Berber language as well as control of the Berber historical narrative. King Mohammed VI established the Royal Institute of Amaziɣ Culture and appointed Chafik as its dean. Another thin line?

What makes the Berber Manifesto so extraordinary is that it had no wish to return to an idealized golden age, even though the Berbers are the oldest inhabitants of Northern Africa. However, I feel Berber Women of Morocco does make this attempt, because declaring love for a moribund culture is less threatening to fundamentalist, Arabist politics. For example, Prof. Chafik would never be mentioned in a book about women, which is why this book is about women.

Beni-Sibh woman’s costume, Southeast Morocco. They were Jewish and lived in a fortified mellah, or Jewish quarter.

However, I have to give the book credit for mentioning the economic consequences of globalization, which has made it impossible for Berber women to use Morocco’s natural resources to make traditional textiles. Synthetic clothes and blankets are cheaper, easier to maintain, and sell to tourists.

Today, women even call the polyester fleece worn under their hijabs “cashmere.” Men sit at large looms in public, weaving nothing like the textiles women used to make in their homes.

Ayt Atta woman’s cape, or tamizart, made of wool and cotton

In the last chapter, Titouan Lamazou and Karen Huet wrote that 20 years ago, “this craft remained so degraded that only the most senior weavers remained.” Young weavers worked in guilds (not exactly a nomadic concept, but it’s all people can do now). “They were day laborers, kept in poverty by the masters, reluctant to pass on their knowledge” because these guilds could not maintain a stable labor force. A few decades earlier, weavers’ social status was as high as silversmiths’. So people who want to do something create more guilds where they hope people will stay, and knowledge can be transferred.

Woven women’s belts

Yet in the foreward, Pierre Bergé said, “Proud of their heritage, the Imaziɣn are ready to face the present, convinced as I am, that civilization is nothing more than a respect for the past while welcoming the future.” I never knew anyone who welcomed a future of globalization with a fake identity imposed upon them.

The Berbers are in a political fight between Arabism and pluralism. Arabism = ethnocide; pluralism = survival. Chafik is right. I just wish the book could have included this, so people would understand why the Berbers weren’t in charge of their own exhibit.

European museums have always collected precious artifacts from ethnic groups whose traditions were destroyed. After any hope of regaining their identifying life-style is gone, an exhibition can celebrate the existence of a culture that can’t threaten what the museum wants to leave out of the narrative. Those who curate, organize, fund, and contribute to it look elegant. Their privilege is living off limits to inquiry.

Princess Lalla Salma, wife of King Mohammed VI, presiding over the opening ceremony of the exhibition.

How many Berbers live untroubled in Morocco?
A minuscule number we are assured.

And so an American tourist looks at the beautiful jewelry, falls in love with its exotic nature, remembers Yves St. Laurent’s breathtakingly beautiful, genuinely loving Africa collection (Spring-Summer 1967)…

and goes home to Santa Barbara, California, to entertain a friend.

The coffee tray was delicately set on the table.
“What amazing jewelry. Did you really get to see this in Paris?”
“Yes, Stephen and I had a wonderful second honeymoon.”
“How lovely. Are you going to the Hamptons this summer?”

Hairdressing as Language: Exhibit at the Musée Dapper

The Musée Dapper in Paris was realized by the efforts of the Olfert Dapper Foundation. Dapper was a Dutch historian whose most famous book, Description of Africa (1688), wove geography, economics, politics, medicine, social life and customs. Free of ethnocentric judgments, it remains an indispensable resource for historians.

The museum’s current exhibition, “Initiés, Bassin du Congo,” features 100 works that explore the link between hairdressing in traditional African societies and initiation rites, such as birth, adolescence, marriage, and death. Jean- Paul Notué writes the exhibition catalog, “A hairstyle is an act of socialization and metamorphosis that permits a person to relay their history, social rank, and cultural identity.”

The works on display are architectural, strong, and iconic — an expression of tribal identities that have endured war, political upheaval, and commercialism. You can see many of the museum’s headdresses in this video.

This dramatic headdress belongs to the Lega People, one of the ethnic groups of the Democratic Republic of Congo. The cap was made from fibers of human hair, with a shell decoration in the middle, and buttons decorating the front and strap.

This crest mask is from the Ejagham tribe of Northern Cameroon. Made of one piece of wood, the mask also uses untanned antelope skin, straw, and pigments. It is dated 1928 and was borrowed from the State Museum for Ethnology in Munich.

There is also an installation by contemporary German-Kenyan artist Ingrid Mwangi, who says, “Our own soul immediately plunges the viewer into the heart of the matter: the meaningful content of the hairstyle.”


For more scholarly research, please examine our Resource Library and these books:

Ethnic Jewellery and Adornment

African Masks: From the Barbier-Mueller Collection

Powerful Headdresses: Africa and Asia

Creative Museum: Fabulous Auguste Bonaz

The Creative Museum has just acquired a new Auguste Bonaz comb. Clear celluloid is decorated in a geometric red design that changes with the light. You may also notice the brilliance of Joel Olliveaud’s photography, where the dark grey shadow matches the diagonal edge of the comb, before the light softens at the bottom. This Bonaz is one of his best and a truly magnificent choice. Bravo.


For more scholarly research, please examine the Creative Museum’s publications at the Musée d’Angouleme:

Chinese and Japanese Hair Ornaments

En tête a tête

Creative Museum: Exhibition at the Musée d’Angoulême

Online community is still miraculous. In addition to publishing superb books, our devotion to the beauty and cultural revelation of combs is being recognized by museums.

Thirty combs from the Creative Museum join headdresses from the private collection of Antoine de Galbert for a “world tour” exhibition at the Musée d’Angoulême. En Tête à Tête: Parures de tête à travers le monde (English translation: From Head to Head: Headpieces from Around the World) will show from October 1 to December 31, 2011.

Noticing our online achievements, curators are realizing that hair combs “mark the beat of life… are privileged witnesses to cultural identites… and are immersed in a magical vision.” We did it. We’re walking in the front door. Today is a glorious day. Hi Birds. :-)


For more scholarly research, please examine

Prehistoire de la Charente: Les temps ante-historiques en Angoumois a travers les collections du Musee d’Angouleme (French Edition)

Ainsi soit-il : Collection Antoine de Galbert – Extraits