Kabyle Talisman to Victorian Curiosity by Tanya Bentley
The focus of my research for my first term essay was a nineteenth-century ring brooch from the Kabyle Berber region of North-Eastern Algeria, now part of the Middle Eastern collections at the V&A Museum. I was first drawn to this object because of its interesting design of alternate pieces of red coral and cloisonné enamel in blue, yellow and green.
Throughout the course of my research I allowed my object to lead the discussion. This approach helped me uncover the varying lifecycles and impact this type of jewellery had on different cultures across the world. I first discovered that this ring brooch was a type of fibula; a brooch used by Berber women to fasten clothing together. A nineteenth-century collector and chronicler of French and North African art, Paul Eudel (1837-1911), had helpfully compiled a dictionary of jewellery from North Africa at roughly the same time period that my object dates to. Eudel’s dictionary helped me determine that my ring brooch was a tabzimt a medium-sized fibula which, in certain villages in Kabylia, would be given as a gift by a husband to his wife after giving birth to a child and worn either on her forehead if the child was a boy, or on her chest for a girl. This sort of jewellery would also be given as a dowry, commissioned for the bride to wear on her wedding day and kept from then on as her exclusive property.
I was really interested in the significance of this object within Berber culture. It clearly had links to family life and marriage based on the circumstances in which it was used and worn. These pieces would certainly beautify the wearer, however their intention was not simply decorative. They would also act as an important form of protection for the wearer. It was through the design of an object – perhaps choosing red coral because of its associations with sexual prowess and fecundity or silver for its connections to purity- that the wearer would ascribe the ornament with medicinal, protective and magical properties that could help deflect evil, misfortune, or even attract goodness, known as baraka.
The discovery of sources such as Paul Eudel’s dictionary of North African jewellery or writings of French and British travellers visiting the region at the time led me to consider the impact that the French colonisation of the region in 1830 would have had on the production and dissemination of Kabyle jewellery such as the tabzimt at the centre of my study. Throughout the nineteenth century, and especially after French colonisation, Algeria was becoming an increasingly fashionable holiday getaway. British travellers, relying on pocket-sized guide books proliferating the book markets, would plan their journey from London to Marseilles in time to catch the regular passenger service established from the 1860s between Marseilles and Algiers. Kabyle jewellery ornaments, such as this tabzimt, were popular amongst tourists and could be easily purchased in bazaars in Algiers. In response to this burgeoning tourist market, Kabyle artisans changed their traditional designs, creating smaller, lighter and more decorative pieces to fit Western tastes. This particular tabzimt was bought by a Victorian woman, Mrs Maria Eliza Simpson, the wife of William Simpson, a well-known watercolour painter and journalist, during her travels to Algiers in the late nineteenth century. Significantly, it might never have been used by a Kabyle woman, rather brought back to England as a souvenir piece from a memorable travel expedition.
In the course of my research, I attempted to demonstrate possible contexts for these Kabyle ornaments once they made the long journey back to Britain. After looking through British fashion magazines such as The Queen from the 1860s onwards it was clear that their styles were often featured in articles and exchanged amongst readers. A glance at Liberty & Co fancy-dress trade catalogues also revealed that made-to-order ‘Kabyle’ costumes were available to Victorian women suggesting a possible fancy-dress context for this sort of jewellery. For me, the interjection of Kabyle ornaments into Victorian Britain provides an interesting example of the way colonial material culture was popularised in Britain. It also demonstrates a new function and life story for this type of object and certainly dilutes the prophylactic and familial associations that this object has within Berber society.
Whether as a protective talisman or Victorian curiosity, these ornaments, with their clean geometric designs in enamel and coral, had a universal appeal and reveal the fascinating histories of those whom they encountered.This article was part of the Reimagining Objects exhibition project in February 2016