Imazighen! Beauty and Artisanship in Berber Life

Pottery Vessel From Kabylia
Three-bodied ceramic vessel from Kabylia, Algeria. PM 04-22-50/64057

The Berbers—or Imazighen—are the original inhabitants of North Africa. Since the dawn of history, speakers of the Berber language (Tamazight) have populated the vast territory from western Egypt to the Canary Islands and from the Mediterranean coast to the farthest reaches of the Sahara. Over the centuries these peoples were given many names. “Berber” comes from the Latin "barbarus", a term applied by the Romans to non-Latin-speaking peoples. Today many Berbers prefer to be called by tribal or regional names, or by the more general term Imazighen (singular, Amazigh), which means “free men” in the Berber language. 

The great Mediterranean empires left their imprint on North Africa, but the Arab conquest beginning in the seventh century had the most profound impact. The Arabs brought with them Islam and the Arabic language. Berber populations slowly adopted the new religion but adhered to their own linguistic heritage. Their geographic isolation in remote mountain and desert regions helped to preserve the Berber difference in both language and culture. Today, people who identify themselves as Berbers are widely scattered in both rural and urban areas. They make up approximately 20 percent of the population of Algeria and 40 percent of the population of Morocco. Smaller communities can be found in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Mauritania, Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso, and Nigeria, as well as in a growing Amazigh diaspora in Europe and North America.

The Peabody Museum's collections from Berber North Africa came to the museum not as part of a systematic effort to create a "Berber collection" but as a result of various people's interests in North Africa and the Peabody Museum. The more than 450 pieces from Berber regions in Algeria and Morocco now housed at the museum were accquired by both travelers and Harvard-trained anthropologists. The majority of the objects were collected in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century, and many of them had been used in daily life before they were accquired by the eventual donor to the Peabody. In a way these are ordinary objects—blankets, clothing, storage vessels, utensils, bags—but they are also intricately decorated works of art that showcase the talents of individual craftsmen and craftswomen.

This exhibit originally opened at the Peabody in December of 2004. Many of the items were also beautifully catalogued in Artistry of the Everyday: Beauty and Craftsmanship in Berbert Art by Lisa Bernasek (Peabody Museum Press, 2008).