Tuareg Reed Weaving | A brief history lesson

This article looks at Saharan Tuareg culture, through the lens of architectural design and handcraft.

Niger. Sahel. Tuareg nomad mother and daughter resting under their leather tent, the mother on her bed, the girl on the sand. Their arms are dyed dark blue from shiny indigo clothing, like the girl’s head wrap.

In the past few years, Tuareg reed carpets have become a fashionable addition to “midcentury” interiors. In the world of interior design, they are popular because they offer an organic, neutral softening to a space. Their bold simplicity creates a great backdrop to more vibrant soft furnishings, whilst also serving as a statement piece in a minimalistic space.

It is unsurprising then, that The Store Maroc has experienced a flurry of orders for this type of Tuareg handcraft. It is great to see this artistry being appreciated, but following popularity comes rarity. The sudden rise in popularity of these usually antique or vintage artefacts, has inevitably led to a shortage in the market. In response to the shortage, factories in areas of West Africa have started to manufacture brand new woven reed carpets, at a rapid rate.

When something is removed from it’s context, it becomes a decorative or performative object. It is important that we also consider the cultural significance of antique artefacts, beyond their aesthetic. To honour something, we should understand it’s history.

Tuareg is a term which is widely used when referring to the nomadic people of the Sahara. Let’s call it an umbrella term; because it encompasses and greatly simplifies, the complex societal differences which exist between Saharan tribes. In fact, a Tuareg person would only use this name if describing themselves to a non-nomadic person. Generally, Saharan nomads call themselves Kel Tamasheq or Kel Tagelmust (which means “speaker of Tamasheq/Tagelmust”), both names referring to the dialect spoken in the desert regions. Each Tawshet (Tuareg clan) is made up of family groups constituting a tribe, led by its chief, the amghar. Tuareg self-identification is related only to their specific Kel, which means “those of”. For example, Kel Dinnig (those of the east), Kel Ataram (those of the west).

Tuareg people belong to the Berber ethnic group, and primarily inhabit a vast expanse of the Sahara between southwest Libya and the southern regions of Algeria, Niger, Mali & Burkina Faso. Many historians recognise the Tuaregs as having originally belonged to the Berber group of North Africa. By means of their nomadic lifestyle, they’ve played a great role in the dispersion of the Islamic faith across the continent.

Tuareg culture is understood to be matrilineal, with women holding a high status in society. The culture is distinctive in terms of clothing, adornment, art, food, language, music, dance, weaponry and not least architecture ( all of which vary from tawshet to tawshet). When we talk about Tuareg architecture, we talk about vernacular architecture.

There is recognisable differentiation in architectural design and decoration in each region, but there are several core factors which they share in common. They are built with organic, readily available materials, they’re temporary to allow for a “leave no trace” lifestyle and they’re lightweight enough to be carried on foot (or by camel) across a harsh, arid climate. At first glance these structures might appear basic, but in reality they are specifically engineered to contend with their environment. A shelter which provides cover from the burning sun, warmth on the cold desert nights, protection from sand storms, security and storage for food and above all a place to love, to nurture children. A home with minimal negative impact on the natural environment.

What we now refer to as Tuareg Reed Carpets, are traditionally used as wall sections and floor coverings. A typical dwelling will feature a domed roof made from leather, or sometimes camel hair. The walls and floor coverings are made from tightly woven reed and leather, featuring geometric designs. The close knit weave helps prevent dangerous insects (such as scorpions), from entering the family home. It also aids in maintaining a good indoor climate, against the harsh sun and cold evenings.

Since the early 20th century, women of the Tuareg tribe have been hand-weaving this fabric. A base is made from a weave of reeds and palm leaves, so that the matting will be relatively lightweight and durable. When the base is complete, it is woven with fine strips of dyed camel leather. The decorative patterns are not random, they incorporate protective symbolism belonging to each clan or family. In fact, often the same symbolism can be found both in the Tifinagh alphabet, the jewellery and textiles worn in the region and the henna or tattoos found on the skin of Tuareg women.

In the 90’s an author called Labelle Prussin published a book called African Nomadic Architecture: Space, Place and Gender and it is a great resource for study of Tuareg culture.

If you wish to discuss Tuareg culture and artefacts further, then please contact us.

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