If there is one private institution I particularly appreciate in Paris, it is the Fondation Pierre Bergé-Yves Saint Laurent. Despite being the treasure chest of the iconic fashion brand’s patrimonial archives, it is also a major cultural site that features eclectic exhibitions. Today’s display pays a dazzling tribute to Berber women. As I have said earlier on this site, I am completely uneducated when it comes to ethnic costumes but I surely am a profound admirer of traditional garments (having an Indian background myself, I dream of daring to wear a proper sari one day!). Thus when I visit such exhibitions, I come pure as snow with absolutely no knowledge nor do I relate to the pieces that have nothing to do with my own environment. Femmes Berbères du Maroc (Berber Women of Morocco) is at the crossroads of various implicit themes: acknowledging the audience with a traditional culture and craftsmanship, exhibiting exquisite jewellery and ethnic costumes as well as it refers to Yves Saint Laurent’s native background and lifelong fascination for North Africa.
With much pedagogy, we are first introduced to the Berber culture: the display insists on the fact that women are the key holders of the Berber patrimony that they diffuse with the help of exclusively feminine crafts such as weaving, pottery and basketry. The eldest population of North Africa, Berbers occupy a territory that goes from Morocco’s Atlantic coast to eastern Egypt. Following informative maps, texts and photographies, we soon discover the traditional works created by the tribes’ women: baskets, practical everyday objects made with pottery techniques, woven textiles and carpets…illustrate the skills and decorative taste of the Berber society that clearly emphasizes simple geometrical patterns and earthy tones enhanced by strong blues. The adorning shapes mostly speak about fertility, the motives that go back to prehistoric art, protect against bad luck and are the promise of many childbirths and therefore, happiness. Woven capes bear sacred paroles: ‘ A woman who has made 40 carpets in her life is sure to go to heaven’, the saying affirms. The dim light creates a scared-like atmosphere that forces us to recognize the mysticism diffused by what could be considered as trivial objects.
After observing the creations of Berber women, come the garments and adornments with which they embellish themselves – displayed under a stellar dark sky (and along an oriental tune) that strongly evokes romantic and dramatic Arabian nights in the desert. The draped pieces of clothing are presented worn on white mannequins, on video screens that accent, with various close-ups,, their beauty and the complex technique of wrapping and assembling the textiles around the feminine body. An original curatorial choice that enables visitors to better comprehend the garments. Yet, surely the key objects of the exhibition would be the jewellery presented against majestic black busts. These intricate sculptural pieces made of silver and colourful polished coral or amber stones, as well as shells and coins that feature the same geometric adornments as the daily objects were most often wedding and engagement gifts. They helped express a tribal identity and social status- the reason why women would wear these jewels in a provocative accumulation . Easy to imagine the tinkling sound these adornments produced when worn from head to chest. Videos of these women preforming traditional dances and beautiful 1950s photographies by Mireille Morin-Barde help understand the ceremonial context within which Berber women paraded with their exquisite embellishments. Interestingly and intelligently, there is no hierarchy, within the display, between daily objects and ceremonial items: the first enable an indispensable everyday existence while still bearing mystical symbols when the second help build an explicit identification.
Most objects come from the Berber Museum that opened its doors in 2011, in Marrakesh’s Majorelle Garden which Pierre Bergé and Yves Saint Laurent had purchased in 1980. Housing testimony of Berber art, the museum also possessed the jewels passionately collected by the couple from 1966 (when they first visited the country). Yves Saint Laurent who was himself born in Algeria was strongly inspired by the culture he had been surrounded with as a child and that he lovingly found again in the 1970s with his gypset gang. He even attested he had discovered colours in Morocco and yes, Orient definitely influenced some of his most exquisite colourful and embroidered collections and I could not help myself from trying to make links between the traditional costumes displayed here and his couture designs ( an exhibition was organised in Marrakesh, in 2010/2011 to illustrate Yves Saint Laurent’s relationship with Morocco.)
What I appreciated most is that this exhibition does not display ethnic garments for the sake of presenting beautiful oriental pieces. The Fondation Pierre Berge-Yves Saint Laurent adds a sociological and inspirational feel to a show that clearly demonstrates what significant place the Berber woman occupies in her society? And how important her appearance can be, proving dressing up is not simply a means of frivolity as we easily tend to claim in our Western societies.