‘Desert Jewels’ takes a bold look at North Africa

Bold and beautiful: A striking necklace of amber created by members of the Ait Atta tribe in Morocco is among the treasures from Africa on view in “Desert Jewels.”

Three strands of huge amber beads make up one dramatic, even show-stopping, necklace on view in “Desert Jewels” at the Museum of the African Diaspora in The City.

Subtitled “North African Jewelry and Photography from the Xavier Guerrand-Hermes Collection,” the exhibit of nearly 100 adornments and about two dozen mostly 19th-century photographs provides a brief glimpse into the lives of the people of the region.

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At the same time, the show, organized by the Museum for African Art in New York, illustrates the connoisseurship of Guerrand-Hermes, an executive at Hermes of Paris who is part of the fifth generation of the famed fashion family.

Refreshingly focusing on North Africa, rather than West African culture (which has been more popular in museums), the show also invites viewers “to explore the collector’s impulse,” according to MOAD Executive Director Grace C. Stanislaus.

Over a period of decades, while living in Morocco, Guerrand-Hermes collected the bold and exquisite necklaces, bracelets, amulets, earrings, head and hair ornaments, and fibulae (pinlike devices used to fasten garments).

Only a portion of his extensive collection appears in the exhibition, but the choices encompass various  evolving styles and techniques. A range of materials were used; the most striking pieces, from the 20th century, are made of combinations of amber, coral or silver.

Big, bold, colorful and often intricate, most have a contemporary feel, even those created by nomadic groups or farmers living in mountainous or desert areas.   

The exhibit’s historic photographs, mostly from the 19th century, provide an interesting contrast to the jewelry. Many were created by some of Europe’s leading early photographers who were drawn to the exotic “Orient” and took efforts to present colonists’ view of the region. Many worked in Algeria, where, catering to the business and tourist trade, they took, and often staged, pictures that fulfilled expectations and stereotypes of foreign places and people.

While the images may not be truthful in a documentary sense, they nonetheless capture aspects of life in North Africa, even if only at the surface.

Ultimately, the exhibition “Desert Jewels” offers a similar experience. The artworks created by people of Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria are undeniably gorgeous and Guerrand-Hermes’ taste is unsurpassed, befitting his fashion family’s legacy.

Slightly more background information — even a few brief notes describing symbols in the designs, or differences between the different groups who created them — would give the show of beautiful objects and evocative photos added appeal.

lkatz@sfexaminer.com

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