Pastoralists and brigands with a penchant for poetry is one of the more romantic descriptions of the Tuareg, a nomadic people who speak a dialect of Berber and who inabit a huge swath of the Sahara touching parts of Algeria, Libya, Niger, Nigeria, Mauritania, Mali, and Burkina Faso. Known as the “blue men,” because of the vibrant hue of their flowing robes, and as the “people of the veil” because of their covered faces, warriors of the Tuareg nobility have captured the imagination of Europeans since explorers first encountered them in the nineteenth century.
Riding astride magnificent camels trained to engage in close combat, the Tuareg once controlled caravan routes stretching across the Sahara. As early as the fifteenth century, they traded with the Portuguese in what is now Mauritania. Their economy was based on herding, supplemented by trading salt, protecting caravans, and raiding weaker rivals. The Tuareg nobility depended on a worker class to tend its flocks, a slave class to meet its domestic needs, and an artisan class to produce exquisite leather, wood, and metal goods. The Sahelian drought of the 1970s and 80s brought about dramatic changes in Tuareg society. Many became sedentary, and the class structure based on herding dissolved—to the detriment of Tuareg arts.
Harvard research anthropologist Lloyd Cabot Briggs (1909-1975, Harvard Ph.D. 1952) was a leading authority on the Sahara and its people. Briggs served in Algeria with the Office of Strategic Services during World War II and remained there after the war to continue his work on the people of the Sahara, writing several books on the topic. Enthralled by the austere beauty of the desert, he recognized the fragility of its economy and society, and he began to systematically collect Tuareg materials representing every type of artisanship. The exceptional quality of the collection on display here is largely due to his effort and foresight.