"Desert Jewels:" on view at SCAD's Pei Ling Chan Gallery gives us a rare glimpse of some of the finest jewelry and photography from Mr. Xavier Guerrand-Hermes' collection. Organized by the Museum for African Art in New York City, this collection traveled to the Smithsonian before coming to the Savannah College of Art and Design.
Mr. Guerrand-Hermes is known for his impeccable designs in jewelry, leatherwork, textiles and clothing. While living in Morocco, Mr. Guerrand-Hermes developed an appreciation for the culture and arts of Morroco, Algeria and Tunisia. He began collecting fine examples of jewelry and photography from the region.
Approximately 80 objects in this exhibition show off exquisite design and exceptional craftsmanship of North African Jewelry. Also on view are 27 exemplary photographs by some of the leading European photographers of the day (Pascal Sebah and George Washington Wilson). They provide a context for this exhibit by revealing how the women and men wore the jewelry.
Jewelry was often given to women by their husbands as symbolic expressions of status and identity. The objects often feel personal because they were worn on the bodies of women; held, touched and valued. The pieces in this exhibition range from necklaces that announced wedding engagements to spiked black bracelets once used in war fare.
One thing interesting about North African jewelry is the exchange of ideas and materials that occurred because of the geographic location of this region. Most jewelers in the North African region were Itinerant Imagziighen or Jewish Artists who had emigrated from the Middle East. They brought with them Spanish and Moorish Styles and craftsmanship, in particular niello, filigree, enameling and the art of bezel setting. Enamel techniques, like cloisonné (which involve pouring powdered glass, diluted with binders and water, into compartments of metal), had to be passed on by a master smith and practiced in a workshop. To do this required time, patience and practice.
There are many examples in this show worth mentioning. The Moroccan "Necklace with Beads" (Tagguemount) is an extremely colorful and imaginative piece with a range of materials from shell and wool to stone and enamel. Other pieces like the Algerian "Large Bracelet" are regal in design. "Cross Amulet", a Moroccan, early 20th century pendant made by the Amazigh people, is probably the most powerful in the show. Hanging on black leather strands offset by fringes, this large silver box, shaped like a cross, has studs on all ends. This piece seemed to speak to me, and ironically I learned that pendants like this one were said to have contained either magical numbers or inscriptions serving to protect against evil. As SCAD's Senior Curator, Melissa Messina, said, "I am a fan of the "'Cross Amulet' for its amazing combination of masculine and feminine characteristics."
The signature piece for this exhibition is "Fibula (Tabzimt)". This "Fibula" - not to be confused with the anatomical part of the body - is an ornamental pin that fastens caps and shawls. Seen in person, "Fibula" is bold in design and vibrant in color. It is absolutely regal and unforgettable.
Photography deserves mention here and the wonderful array of images on display gives us a window into 19th and 20th century life. J. Sabah's "Market at Ghezireh" depicts an aerial view of a dusty hot market place in Gheziereh, Egypt. Nearly a hundred people in robes and turbans are seen trading, resting or standing near their camels loaded with goods. It is a lively place to be.
Two things occur to me when looking at this show: the first is the impressive scale of the jewelry. When I walked into the exhibit I was struck by the large size of the jewelry. Several necklaces appeared to be 40 inches or more from end to end; the amber golden beads were the size of prunes and the cloisonné beads, the size of lemons. The power of these symbolic necklaces was obvious. But I also wondered how women would comfortably wear this jewelry. Then the second idea came to me; and that was the idea of time.
I can't help but wonder, if 19th century North African artists had Face book, Twitter, and the Internet would they have taken the time to produce such carefully crafted jewelry?
If Blackberry phones were ringing in the midst of their jewelry workshops, could they have finished their work? Contemporary life doesn't allow us much time anymore.
In the end, "Desert Jewels" is an inspiring collection of what can be done if contemporary artists put time, patience and craft into their work.
Desert Jewels is on view at the Pei Ling Chan, Gallery through June 19. Marcia Neblett teaches drawing, color theory and design at the Savannah College of Art and Design. She has traveled to North Africa and India.