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Out of the Sahara

An ancient culture that once survived by the sword now finds its strength in art. Thomas Seligman followed the Tuareg story for 30 years and brings it to campus in a landmark exhibition.

Photo: Thomas Seligman

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By Marguerite Rigoglioso

Over thousands of years the Tuareg people of North and West Africa mastered the Sahara and repelled or controlled outsiders, earning a near-mythic reputation as noble warriors. Today, modernity and geopolitics are proving as formidable as the unforgiving desert. As trucks slowly replace camels for transport, cash displaces camels or other animals as currency, and state governments overpower indigenous structures, the Tuareg face pressures that threaten their way of life.

Among the more than 1 million Tuareg—pastoral nomads, settled farmers and, increasingly, city dwellers—one group stands out for its adaptability to change. They are the inadan, artists and smiths once considered near the bottom rung of Tuareg society. Inadan possess a highly marketable skill: the ancient knowledge of how to fashion jewelry and other handicrafts embellished with intriguing symbols. (See sidebar.) By venturing into global markets and meeting the tastes of new customers, their endurance in a cash economy seems more assured than that of the Tuareg elite.

Thomas K. Seligman, John & Jill Freidenrich Director of Stanford’s Cantor Arts Center since 1991, has been involved with the inadan for more than 30 years. In May, he will bring the fruits of his studies and the work of his Tuareg friends to campus as part of the first major Tuareg art exhibit in the United States.

Seligman, ’65, designed Art of Being Tuareg: Sahara Nomads in a Modern World as a joint project between the Cantor Arts Center and the Fowler Museum at UCLA. The show opened in Los Angeles last October, captivating viewers with the shimmering, colorful and exceptionally crafted earrings, amulets, necklaces, bracelets, handbags and other wares that make up the ever-evolving Tuareg repertoire. These items will be on display at Stanford from May 30 to September 2, along with videos of artists at work in Niger. The gallery will include a boutique-like setting to simulate expensive Western shops where Tuareg products are sold, and a desert-like setting with a goatskin tent and accoutrements of daily life.

“I simply love the people and the rich culture and art from this part of the world,” Seligman says. “I want to turn people on to Africa, not just to break down American stereotypes about the continent but also to share how wonderful a place I think it is.”

The exhibit also helps fulfill the responsibility he feels toward the people he has lived with and studied during the past three decades. “As a researcher and patron, creating a venue such as this is a way I can give back,” he says. “One of the things that has always captivated me about the Tuareg is their quiet graciousness and hospitality. There’s no keeping score, the way Westerners do, but there’s a natural reciprocity that takes place.”

Seligman first met the family whose art is at the heart of the center’s exhibit in 1971. He was researching art and artifacts in West Africa after serving with the Peace Corps as an assistant professor of art at Cuttington College in Liberia. In Agadez, Niger, he was introduced to Saidi Oumba and his wife, Andi Ouhoulou. They came from a long line of respected inadan and were passing on the skills of making silver jewelry, clothing and leatherwork to their children and extended family in rustic, dirt-floor shops.

“I became intrigued by their way of life, and I wanted to know all about how and why they produced art,” says Seligman, who in addition to his BA in political science has a BFA from the San Francisco Academy of Art and an MFA equivalent in painting and art history from the New York School of Visual Arts.

When Seligman returned to the United States in 1971, he quickly became ensconced in the world of museums as deputy director and curator of the arts of Africa, Oceania and the Americas at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. He curated major exhibits on pre-Columbian Mesoamerica, Aboriginal Australia, indigenous peoples of North and Central America, and the African continent.

Seligman took numerous (often grant-funded) trips to West Africa. Spending anywhere from two weeks to three months per sojourn, he observed the Oumba/Ouhoulou artisans at work. He watched the children learn to create and sell items, asked questions, took photos, collected fine pieces for museum and private collections, and relaxed over strong tea. He also traveled across parts of the Sahara by camel to experience the wider context of Tuareg culture.

“Being on camels ten to twelve days in a row is rigorous!” he says. “After my first ten-hour day, I just flopped down on the ground and slept. But it’s the only way to get to certain places, and it’s the only real way to get a sense of the rhythm of Tuareg life.”

For Seligman, knowing the Tuareg has meant living like them whenever possible. “When I’m in Niger in the fall during the Muslim festival Ramadan, I fast all day long with them,” he says. “Everyone gets tired and grouchy, and you’re woken up at 4:30 in the morning to eat pasta and meat because you can only eat before sunrise and after sunset. That’s not fun. I will admit, though,” he says with a laugh, “that I’ve been known to sneak off some days for a Coke and a baguette.”

Seligman never set out to do a longitudinal study of how the Oumba/Ouhoulou family members have modified their art and life. “It just happened slowly over time as I kept returning to Africa and being welcomed by Saidi and Andi,” he says.

The Tuareg are sometimes called the “Blue People of the Sahara” because the indigo of their traditional clothing—a color signifying prestige and wealth—rubs off on their skin. Living throughout southern Algeria and Libya, Mali, Niger, Nigeria and Burkina Faso, they form part of the larger indigenous African group historians identify as Berbers—and increasingly as Amazigh, a more ancient name meaning “free people.” The idea of freedom is held dear by the Tuareg, who once crossed the desert by caravan unimpeded by national borders. But wave after wave of invasions by Phoenicians, Romans, Arabs and Europeans disrupted the Tuareg lifestyle, forcing them to move further south into the Sahara and beyond, adopt new languages and religions, including Islam, and in many cases abandon indigenous forms of governance.

Seligman describes the creation of national borders, and the passports and bureaucracy and corruption that go with them, as “a kind of harassment for people who have been living in this land for as long as anybody knows. These borders are completely arbitrary to the Tuareg and don’t correspond to their own federational borders or even natural terrain. They’re just lines that Europeans have drawn. They resent it. When harassment and neglect get bad enough, they rebel.”

Since French colonization in the 20th century, control of the Tuareg region has been punctuated by numerous armed uprisings. In the 1990s, small bands of Tuareg skirmished with armed forces in Mali and Niger in an attempt to improve social, economic and political rights. Seligman has known several leaders of the rebellion, including Mano Dayak, who was killed in a plane crash in 1995 en route to a peace conference with representatives of the Niger military. “I’m able to keep doing what I’m doing because I fly under the radar. I don’t have a public political agenda,” says Seligman of his research in a region that has always been politically contested—and is now a zone of U.S. antiterrorism training.

Seligman points out some of the reasons why the inadan were better equipped to cope with change. Because of their work, “the inadan always tended to be more sedentary within the nomadic Tuareg society, staying in camp, because they had to work with fire and needed a workshop.” When droughts and rebellions forced people into towns, which became cities, the inadan became separated from their nomadic noble-class patrons. “At the same time,” Seligman notes, “droughts brought in aid workers, and those people became consumers of Tuareg culture. So the smiths were buying and selling things while the nobles were losing their herds.”

In addition, the inadan were “more likely to send their children to French schools, while the nobles resisted,” Seligman says. “So from the educational and economic standpoints, the smiths are in many ways now better off than the nobles in terms of their ability to be effective in the global arena.”

Seligman may steer clear of politics, but his work might help open doors for the Tuareg by introducing them to Americans. Mohamed Ewangaye, a member of an inadan family and a diplomatic leader of the Tuareg revolutionary move-ment in Niger, is pleased with the attention the exhibition is bringing to Tuareg concerns.

“Although we are Muslim,” he says, “our armed uprisings have nothing to do with Islamic fundamentalism or terrorism. These are nationalist struggles. I think this exhibit is an important beginning for bringing awareness of who we are and what’s really going on. In fact, we are closely allied with Americans in our ideas about the importance of democracy.”

Seligman has kept his studies focused on how the family of Saidi Oumba and Andi Ouhoulou has adapted traditional Tuareg symbols, designs and materials for a growing world market. Like most inadan, the family is no longer nomadic and is actively engaged in exchange relationships with other Africans and non-Africans in the cash economy of Niger. Private buyers and posh shops in Europe and America have pushed them to produce nontraditional objects as chopstick holders and belt buckles.

The exhibition, made possible in part by Diane, ’65, and Karen Christensen, ’82, and Ruth Halperin, ’47, explores such transformations in depth. Also, Tuareg artists from Niger, with the support of Bill, ’42, and Jean Lane, will visit campus for educational programming before the show makes its last stop at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art.

While some may lament the changes that the Western world has wrought on Tuareg art and life, Seligman is more circumspect. “The notion that culture is fixed is false,” he says. “Museums are like mausoleums—our job is to embalm things in a moment in time. But culture is dynamic, and the Tuareg culture in particular has always been responsive to its environment. Are these changes good or bad? I don’t know. What’s more important to me is the fact that the inadan are pushing their designs and making a living. I think this is one way that Tuareg culture will in fact be able to survive in the long term.”


MARGUERITE RIGOGLIOSO is a Bay Area writer who also researches Amazigh culture.

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