Amazigh (Berber)

Types of Art

The Amazigh are known for jewelry, weaving, pottery, and leatherwork, all largely created by women, though men also produce decorative and functional objects. A great deal of Amazigh art incorporates geometric shapes (triangles, lozenges, diamonds) and abstracted eye and hand motifs that protect against the evil eye. Despite common motifs and color schemes, there is artistic variance in Amazigh culture and stylistic characteristics differ depending on sub-regions (e.g. Ait Khabbash in southern Morocco), villages (e.g. Taghzuth in Morocco), and other smaller subsets of Amazigh people (e.g. Tuareg). Noted collections of Amazigh art are featured in the Bardo National Museum and Musée des Arts et Traditions Populaires, both in Algiers; Musée National Bardo in Tunis; Musée Dar Batha in Fez; Musée Dar Si Saïd in Marrakesh; and the Musée Dar Jamai and Musée du Quai Branly in Paris. In 2008, the Peabody Museum organized an exhibition on Amazigh art entitled Artistry in the Everyday,which described Amazigh art as “based on the embellishment of everyday art” (Bernasek 2008). While much of the textiles, carved wood, and other objects created and used by Amazighen embellish the household, brides wear silver and amber jewelry, and  commonly wore it to mark their marital status until the 1980s. The Stanley Museum of Art is the only museum in the world with a complete Ait Khabbash bridal gown.

Amazigh weavers typically use a fixed heddle loom to create wool fiber pieces that are used as clothing, blankets and floor coverings. When the Amazigh lived in the desert, women wove long, narrow panels that they sewed together to create wool tents. This ceased for many groups in the 1960s, including the Ait Khabbash, one of the largest Amazigh groups in southern Morrocco (Becker 2006). Ait Khabbash women often weave tents from undyed goat wool and floorcoverings and pillows from sheep’s wool, usually dyed red, green, yellow and black.  Ait Khabbash women wear indigo-dyed or black head coverings that they embroider with brightly colored motifs and sequins, incorporating a visual dichotomy in which dark and light colors appear side by side.  Most of the motifs consist of triangles, plants and flowers, which serve as fertility symbols (Becker 2006).

While Amazigh jewelry is primarily made of silver, women largely sold their amber and silver jewelry to European collectors and tourist shops in the late 1990s to the early 2000s, choosing instead to wear gold (Becker 2006). Silver jewelry is often set with coral-colored glass or coins, and rarely with precious stones. Jewelry serves as a woman’s portable savings account and can be sold in case of need.  Many of its designs and motifs protect women from malevolent forces, which is why women often wear pendants in the shape of the the hand (referred to in Arabic as khamsa and in Tamazight, the Amazigh language, as afous).

Amazigh women in the Middle Atlas and Rif Mountains of Morocco also make hand-coiled pottery that is typically low-fired in open fire pits and features painted decorations. It is not usually sold, but is used for personal consumption. Bowls, water jars, milk pots, and vessels are unglazed and decorated with painted red or white slips, including geometric shapes that protect against the evil eye. Although women make and use pottery, men also throw less decorated, larger vessels on pottery wheels for carrying and storing water and oil.

Contemporary artists in Amazigh culture thrived after Morocco gained independence from France in 1956, after which many artists traveled to Europe to learn to paint (Becker 2006). Most well-known contemporary artists are men, which is a contrast to Amazigh art made prior to Morocco’s independence from France, in which women are the primary producers. One of the most prolific Moroccan contemporary artists is Farid Belkahia who is is inspired by traditional Amazigh art and uses Tifinagh (an Amazigh writing form) script.

History

These people call themselves Amazigh. "Berber" is a name that has been given them by others and which they themselves do not use. Amazigh history in North Africa is extensive and diverse. Their ancient ancestors settled in the area just inland of the Mediterranean Sea to the east of Egypt. Many early Roman, Greek, and Phoenician colonial accounts mention a group of people collectively known as Berbers living in northern Africa. In actuality, Berber is a generic name given to numerous heterogeneous ethnic groups that share similar cultural, political, and economic practices. Over the last several hundred years many Amazigh peoples have converted to Islam.

Economy

Contrary to popular romanticism which portrays Amazigh as nomadic peoples crossing the desert on camels, most actually practice sedentary agriculture in the mountains and valleys throughout northern Africa. Some do, in fact, engage in trade throughout the region, and such practices certainly had a tremendous influence on the history of the African continent. Trade routes established from western Africa to the Mediterranean connected the peoples of southern Europe with much of sub-Saharan Africa thousands of years ago. There are basically five trade routes which extend across the Sahara from the northern Mediterranean coast of Africa to the great cities, which are situated on the southern edge of the Sahara. Amazigh merchants were responsible for bringing goods from these cities to the north. From there they were distributed throughout the world.

Political Systems

Amazigh society was divided between those who tended the land and those who did not. At one time, tilling the land was considered the work of the lower classes, while the upper classes were merchants. Usually, groups of sedentary Amazigh paid allegience to a locally appointed headman, who in turn reported to the noble who considered the village his domain. As time has passed, however, these sedentary farmers have been able to accumulate wealth while the trans-Saharan trade routes diminished in importance. They were also given political status by colonial and postcolonial administrations.

Religion

Most Amazigh are at least nominal followers of Islam, and many strictly observe Islamic traditions. Most of the feasts are observed and celebrated, but the fasting that is required during Ramadan is often excused for those who travel. Like most followers of Islam in northern Africa, many Amazigh believe in the continuous presence of various djinns (spirits). Divination is accomplished through means of the Koran. Most men wear protective amulets which contain verses from the Koran.

Facts about Amazigh (Berber)

Location

Explore a map of Amazigh (Berber) peoples and their neighbors in Morocco, Western Sahara, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt

Countries

Mali, Niger

Languages

Tamazight

Population

3 million

Neighboring Peoples

Hausa, Fulani, Mossi, Mauretanians, Bedouin, Egyptians