Jewelled Tales of Libya displayed in London

Sunday 29/01/2017
Libyan jewellery on display at Jewelled Tales of Libya Exhibition of old Libyan jewellery at the Arab-British Centre London. (The Arab-British Centre)

London - The Jewelled Tales of Libya Exhibition in London’s Arab-British Centre was an amazing joint ven­ture between traditional jewellery collector Najlaa el-Ageli, vintage photographs collector Hala Ghellali and contemporary Libyan photographer Sassi Harib.
Forty-five pieces of authentic Lib­yan silver jewellery from the 1920s to the 1960s were displayed in con­junction with vintage photographs of women from all over Libya wear­ing them.
Next to the photographs were the works of Harib, who creates a fasci­nating explosion of colour through his images of women from south­ern Libya wearing their treasured adornments.
Chokers, belts, headpieces, ban­gles and silver slippers are among the displayed jewellery.
“Silver is not being made any more, everything is manufactured in China nowadays,” Ageli said. “It is one of those things that we are los­ing on a major scale. We are saving it. People do not know the value of such heritage. When you take a look at the jewellery, each piece tells a story and it links the different parts of Libya.”
Some of the bulky necklaces, with intricate carvings, were displayed on mannequins. The smaller pieces were in a glass case and visitors to the exhibition could try on the large rings.
Ageli said the jewellery reflects the richness of Libyan history. “At the moment, Libyans themselves are not really aware of their herit­age and history or they have forgot­ten about it,” she said. “If you tell a Westerner that you are from Libya, they are surprised that it is an an­cient country and that it is facing Europe. It is the gateway to Africa but it is unknown. Because of its tur­bulent modern history, it is just as­sociated with dictatorship, wars and conflict and people seem to forget about the beauty of the place.”
The 13 original vintage photo­graphs from Ghellali’s private col­lection date to the early decades of the 20th century. They are images of Libyan women taken by Italian pho­tographers who established studios in Libya during the European colo­nisation and contributed to the Ori­entalist strand of photography.
“Many of the early photos were not of Libyans,” Ghellali said. “I knew that they were not Libyan be­cause the traditional dress was not Libyan. The Orientalist trend was to send photographs home to the fiancé or to the wife. I noticed that many of the photographs [purport­ing to be of Libyans] were not Liby­ans. They were Tunisians posing as Libyans.”
Ghellali, a Libya-born academic translator from California, has been a keen collector of photographs from colonial and post-colonial Lib­ya for 20 years and has many origi­nal photographs. In 2008, she came across the Libyan Photo Collectors Facebook page and is now one of the administrators of the page.
“I went on eBay, started buying photos and putting them together,” she said. “I also discovered details about the jewellery, about how clothes were made differently 100 years ago. I also tried to ‘read’ the photos according to the writings of travellers, especially women travel­lers.”
Ageli took Harib’s photographs to London after a recent visit to Libya. “It is very difficult for him to travel to London,” she explained. “This is the first time his work is exhibited in Europe. His unique work cap­tures the beauty of Libyan women, especially women from the south of Libya in Fezzan, Ghadames and the Nafusa mountains and the beautiful colours of Libya.”
Commenting on the vintage pho­tos she said: “They picture the ma­jority of women all across Libya — Tripoli, Benghazi, Tobruk and the Tuareg and Tibu tribes — in the early 20th century. They tell quite an in­teresting story.
“The first thing that catches your eye is the faces: the Arab, African and Amazegh faces of the different ladies but when you look closely you see a lot of the silver that they wear unites them. That is what caught my attention. I want to cel­ebrate Libyan women. They seem to be forgotten but they are a major part of the country and we have to tell their story.”
Ageli, co-founder of Noon Arts, which strives to bring the best of Libyan art to the world stage, also observed that “the layers of cultural influences that have formed Libya’s identity — from the ancient Greek and Roman civilisations to the Af­rican, Amazigh, Bedouin, Moorish, Jewish, Ottoman and Arab peoples — are innocently revealed in the jew­ellery on display. Together they pre­sent the country’s difficult journey over the millennia, without making any judgment and without hiding any truths.”
Ghellali described the Jewelled Tales of Libya Exhibition as a politi­cal statement, saying: “We want to celebrate Libya’s culture, its history, its beauty and its heritage.”