Amazigh: Aesthetics & Symbology

Pottery vessel, Rif, Morocco. Geometric designs on these pottery vessels symbolized plenty and served to ward off the evil eye. PM 27-36-50/B4317.1
Pottery vessel, Rif, Morocco. PM 27-36-50/B4315.1
Ceramic vessel, Kabylia, Algeria. The lozenge shape on these ceramic vessel from Kabylia represents an eye, one of many protective design elements on such pottery. PM 27-37-50/B4327.3
Three-bodied ceramic vessel with spout, Kabylia, Algeria. Containing triangular and diamond-shaped motifs, this vessel is one of the oldest examples of Berber art at the Peabody Museum. PM 04-22-50/64057
Man's leather bag, Algerian Sahara. This Tuareg bag is covered with designs that show a clear relationship to the tifinagh alphabet, underscoring the imprint of the written language on the visual vocabulary. PM 61-32-50/10459
Man's leather bag, Morocco. In addition to protective design elements, this bag's construction ensures its contents will be kept safe. PM 30-73-50/L184
Man's cape (akhnif), Siroua Moutains, Morocco. Woven of heavy wool and goat hair, this cloak also has eye motifs to protect the wearer from invisible dangers. PM 45-24-50-50/5937
Double amulet necklace (tcherot), Niger. This Tuareg necklace is actually an amulet that contains a piece of paper with written verses of the Qur'an to safeguard the wearer. PM 975-69-50/11944

Amazigh arts, like the Tamazight language, have coexisted with other North African forms of expression since pre-Islamic times. Phoenician, Greek, and Roman invaders left behind the vestiges of a visual culture in the form of figurative sculpture and mosaics depicting scenes of daily life. In contrast, Berbers continued to express their world view and aesthetic vision through abstract design and the embellishment of everyday objects. Utilitarian items like pottery vessels and textiles are as carefully decorated as more ornamental ones such as jewelry or weaponry. 

A shared language of geometry is found wherever Berber is spoken. Geometric designs appear on textiles, pottery, jewelry, and leatherwork; they are incorporated into architecture; and they are even inscribed on the body in the form of the tattoo. Some of these motifs have their origins in the ancient Berber alphabet, tifinagh. Others are drawn from the natural world (the star, the tortoise) or from the objects of daily life (the shovel, the scissors). Vessels used for eating and drinking are embellished with symbols that represent grain, olives, or honeycomb—all associated with richness and plenty. Certain symbols such as the “eye” or the “hand of Fatima” are used to ward off the misfortune associated with the “evil eye.” 

Though the specific names and interpretations of these motifs may differ from place to place and have changed over time, they are often related to a belief in magic and the protective power of the sign. Together they speak of a deeply felt imagination that informs Amazigh cultural expression.