half a century of archive

De la féérie des sables/Tenues des Touaregs

Like private collections, private archives are of great importance. It is through these that we may understand the context of collected things, but all too often, personal archives end up forgotten. That is why the two books about Tuareg dress and personal appearance by Dr. Catherine Vaudour are such treasures: they are dedicated to sharing half a century of research and documentation.

 

The Tuareg inhabit a vast region: from Algeria, Tunisia and Libya in the north to Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger in the south. Within this enormous region, many regional varieties in dress and personal appearance exist. Michel Vallet has documented Tuareg dress and adornment for half a century, between 1957 and 2007. During this timeframe, he carried out numerous visits to all corners of the Tuareg realm and documented his experiences in great detail: in photographs, but also superb drawings and gouaches, notes, maps and sketches.

Michel Vallet passed away in 2018, but wanted his work to be published. Dr. Catherine Vaudour, an ethnolinguist researching the Kel-Ajjer in Algeria, has taken it upon herself to make his work available to a larger audience. She is the founder of the Association Tatrit [1], aimed at preserving the material and immaterial heritage of the Tuareg. One of the many things she has initiated to this end is curating an exposition of a part of Michel Vallet’s work in Nantes (2015-2016), which allowed visitors to explore the world of the Tuareg through its material culture and the meticulous notes and drawings of Michel Vallet.

With this exhibition, a book was published: De la féérie des sables…cinquante ans chez les Touaregs – Fonds Michel Vallet. This beautiful book presents the full texts of the exhibition as well as many drawings and photographs. Starting out with a chapter on the linguistic variety in the Tamasheq language family, the reader is introduced to the way of living of the Tuareg: tents, herding, trading. A fold-out map with the various peoples belonging to the Kel-Tamasheq, ‘the people who speak Tamasheq’ is particularly illustrative as it shows the wide variety of the Tuareg world, which is often represented as a monolithic entity. After this introduction, the book continues with a treasure of detailed information on number of aspects of personal appearance: arms, veils, hairstyles, dress, personal care, and of course jewellery. That is not all: camel-riding and gear, music and poetry follow. And ‘detailed’ really does mean detailed: beautiful drawings of hairstyles, how to wrap a veil, forms of shields, shoes, schematics on how to mount and dismount a camel are presented alongside photographs that bring the Tuareg world to life in all its elegance and splendour.

The volume Les Tenues des Touaregs – Fonds documentaire de Michel Vallet, which followed in 2019, is an extraordinary work which presents the documentary archive left by Michel Vallet in more detail. It focuses on outfits and presents both male and female dress, once again in great detail. The diversity of jewellery shown itself is enormous and I enjoyed seeing how here, too, lines between peoples are blurred: ornaments often only labeled as ‘Tuareg’ are also worn by the Fulani and Ayneha, jewellery pieces such as the hawafir-necklaces and shariyyah-necklaces are worn by the Tuareg as well. Apart from jewellery, there is a wide variety of dress, headgear and other items of personal appearance. And finally, this volume also presents body aesthetic like temporary facial tattoos, even more hairstyles, schematics of dress, shoes and pieces of jewellery. Throughout the book, we see how dress and adornment evolve over time: there is no such thing as ‘static’ dress and this book testifies to change and exchange in great detail.

Both books include an overview of Michel Vallet’s life and a short bibliography. These bibliographies shed an interesting light on the Vallet archive as well. Judging from both bibliographies, only very few other studies have been used in compiling these two publications. You will not find the work of other scholars such as Dr. Anja Fischer, Dr. Thomas K. Seligman or Bert Flint here, for example, or even a single reference in another language than French. That means that the Michel Vallet archive retains its value as its own original source: the names of things, the customs, the ways of dressing and adorning are all as he observed them and noted them down. Both books have been published with great care and a scholarly eye for detail, but without secondary interpretations or placement in the current state of research in this field. This makes for an excellent starting point for comparison between this and other works in the field of Tuareg research: both books present an absolutely unique point of view. This is an original archive that has all the potential to further studies into Tuareg culture – and it is published and available.

It is only too sad that Mr. Vallet has not seen this publication of his life’s work. We should be indebted to dr. Vaudour for her tireless and knowledgeable efforts in achieving these publications, because like I said at the beginning: archives like these are easily forgotten, while they hold an immense amount of information of a world that is changing fast. The onerous task of inventorying, selecting and finally publishing is not an easy one, but I do hope these two books show how personal archives may be shared with researchers worldwide.

These are books that are of great importance, and I would even say they are indispensable for anyone interested in Tuareg dress and adornment. The drawings are breathtaking and plentiful, the photographs are a perfect complement in showing the objects of dress and adornment worn, the maps are illuminating and helpful, and the many sketches of construction details of for example leather bags will have you peer over them for hours. My recommendation would be to purchase both books, as they complement and build on one another. If you do not read French, don’t let that stop you: the books both contain about 95% images and these alone themselves are worth having on your shelf as a resource. Both are squarely in the category of ‘must-have’ reference books!

Les Tenues des Touaregs. Fonds documentaire de Michel Vallet. By Catherine Vaudour, 2019.

Full colour, 311 pages, in French. Published by Association Tatrit (48 euros)

 De la féérie des sables…cinquante ans chez les Touaregs – Fonds Michel Vallet. By Catherine Vaudour, 2016.

Full colour, 113 pages, in French. Published by Association Tatrit (30 euros)

 Both books can be ordered with the Association Tatrit via email: association.tatrit@gmail.com

I purchased both books with the author.

[1] The Association Tatrit does not have a website yet, but one is in the works. Once it is live, I will add the direct link. In the meantime, learn more about their work here (opens a pdf-file)