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Upcoming exhibition at Cantor Center highlights 'artful' Tuareg of the Sahara

Thomas Seligman Tuareg and camel

Above: Tuareg and camel, Niger, 1988, by Thomas Seligman.

Courtesy Cantor Arts Center tuareg hermes

Scarves with Tuareg motifs, Hermès - Paris, France c. 2004.

Thomas Seligman tuareg saidi

Chemo Saidi, Agadez, Niger, 1980, by Thomas Seligman.

Courtesy Cantor Arts Center tuareg saddle

Camel Saddle, by Kaggo Oumba, Tuareg, Kel Ewey, Niamey, Niger c. 1997. “Camel saddles require care and skill in their manufacture,” according to Art of Being Tuareg. “The tamzak, the prestigious version of the simpler terik saddle, has a circular seat, which rests over an inverted V-shaped frame.”

Courtesy Cantor Arts Center tuareg bag

Bag, by Andi Ouhoulou, Tuareg, Kel Ewey, Angadez, Niger, c. 2004.

Courtesy Cantor Arts Center tuareg pendant

Pectoral Pendant (tcherot tan idmarden), Tuareg, Tamanrasset, Algeria, c. unknown.

Courtesy Cantor Arts Center tuareg bracelets

Bracelets (elkiss), by Mohammed Mohammed, Tuareg, Kel Geres, Niger, c. 1975.

BY CYNTHIA HAVEN

Elhadji Mohamed Koumama of Agadez, Niger, leaves his jeans and T-shirt at home when he goes abroad. Instead, for his "work clothes," he dons the traditional Tuareg tagulmust (turban and veil) and grand bubu (a loose robe). It's an impressive outfit, evocative of the regal, formidable desert warriors who were his forebears.

Ask him, and he's likely to pull out of his pocket a heavy, exquisitely engraved bangle in black ebony and silver to show you.

Like all the Tuareg artisans in his clan, the 39-year-old Koumama, now on his seventh visit to America, practices a double art: one trade for the traditional customers in his Saharan homeland, and another for the growing tourist trade and international market.

It's more evidence that the ancient, practical, adaptable Tuareg view their romantic past as another marketing tool in their quest for survival in a barren land—a quest made more complicated by globalization.

"He understands he lives in both these worlds, if they are separate worlds," said Thomas Seligman, the John and Jill Freidenrich Director of the Cantor Center for Visual Arts. "They are converging."

Stanford will have a chance to witness the past and the present of the Tuareg in a new exhibition, Art of Being Tuareg: Sahara Nomads in a Modern World, which runs May 30 through Sept. 2 at the center. It is the first major exhibition in the United States to examine the art and culture of the Tuareg. Koumama's bangles, bracelets, earrings and necklaces will be among those featured in the center's gift shop.

The exhibition features the distinctive jewelry, leatherwork, clothing and highly decorated pieces for which the Tuareg are famous. It includes more than 200 Tuareg works from worldwide collections, photographs, video footage and music. The exhibit considers the complex life of the Tuareg, with its conflict between tradition and the global market, desert living and the modern world.

The exhibition was organized in conjunction with the University of California-Los Angeles, where it premiered at the Fowler Museum last year. After its sojourn at Stanford, it will go to the National Museum of African Art at the Smithsonian Institution.

The Tuareg people are a passion for Seligman, who has spent more than three decades studying, living and working with Tuareg artisans and smiths, or inadan. "It's quite an extraordinary body of research that allows for a longitudinal perspective that isn't that common in African studies," Seligman said. What he describes in Art of Being Tuareg, the book that accompanies the exhibition, is a fluid, adaptable society that defies easy categorizations.

"I don't think there's such a thing as 'tradition,' in a certain way," Seligman said. "We use it to hold people in some frozen moment. Cultures are dynamic. Artists are especially dynamic.

"I don't believe in a notion of preserving culture that makes it an insect on a pin. You're fossilizing something you can't fossilize, anyway," he added.

Koumama, who has known Seligman from childhood, seems puzzled by a Westerner's questions about the need to preserve a "tradition." Koumama said that the modern jewelry his family creates uses the same techniques as the old days, using fire bellows, wax and clay. But now, in addition to daggers and amulets, they also make coffee spoons, chopstick holders and belt buckles.

Seligman first became acquainted with the Tuareg, a nation of Berber peoples in Algeria, Libya, Nigeria, Niger and Mali, when he was living and working in Liberia. Seligman made a 1971 trip to Agadez, in the shadow of the Aïr Mountains in Niger, where he met inadan Saidi Oumba.

Over the years, Seligman spent more and more time with Saidi and his wife, Andi Ouhoulou, who specialized in leatherwork, as well as their growing clan (Koumama is their nephew). "I was interested in understanding what they were making, for whom, and their methods of working," Seligman wrote.

Koumama said that, following customary inadan division of labor, about 30 men in the family currently are working in silver, and about 20 to 25 women are working in leather.

Other gender customs may refute Western preconceptions: Among the Tuareg, the men are veiled and the women are not. The society is largely matrilineal. "They don't fit into the nice bundles that art historians or anthropologists like to have," Seligman said.

The Tuareg defy stereotypes—of Islam, Africa and social relationships—in other ways: The Tuareg are Islamic, but not in any comprehensive sense, Seligman said; it's mixed with a heavy dose of pre-existing pagan beliefs in the evil eye and the world of spirits, or jinn. Tuareg armed uprisings have little to do with Islam or terrorism; they have described them as "nationalist struggles."

Yet while the Tuareg are sometimes referred to as a "nation," they are not, in any commonplace sense of the word. They are not united in any obvious way, and their history has been peppered with internecine conflict. They have, however, confederated against bigger external threats—such as the French colonists or the central governments of Niger and Mali—but these alliances are fluid and dissolvable.

Nor are they united by language: Northern Tuareg speak a Berber language known as Tamasheq; in the south, it's Tamacheck. Moreover, the inadan have a dialect of their own, Tenet.

Racially, the Tuareg have been called "white Africans"—some have green or blue eyes, or wavy hair. Others are typically sub-Saharan African in appearance. According to some traditions, they may even have Jewish or Israeli origins.

"They're a mélange, because they're a trading people," Seligman said. "Trade is a profound influence in the culture."

Seligman said that Africa has too often fallen prey to media images of extreme poverty, despotism, disease and political corruption, which have obscured our understanding of the continent's complicated tapestry of peoples and cultures. "Tarzan still lives in Africa in a lot of people's minds," Seligman said.

Seligman said he hopes the exhibition lets people know instead about the "marvelous things that happen in Africa," and he hopes that it sets a few clichés on their heads. "Americans need to become much more sophisticated in the world. One of the jobs in a university is to train our young people to be much more knowledgeable and aware of all the varieties and textures in the world," he said.

In their ability to navigate all their worlds—and even in their ability to leverage the West's romantic myths of the Tuareg, nomadic life and the Sahara—Seligman calls Saidi Oumba and his wife "exemplars of the 'artful' Tuareg."

The Cantor Arts Center is open Wednesday through Sunday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., with extended hours Thursdays until 8 p.m. Admission is free.

A free symposium, "Saharan Nomadic Art in a Modern World," will be held Saturday, June 2, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. in Annenberg Auditorium. For more information, visit the web at http://museum.stanford.edu/participate/FranklinSymposium2007.html.