By Karen Dabrowska
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.
“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.”
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 travelers.”
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.”
Karen Dabrowska has been writing about the Middle East and Islamic affairs for over twenty years. She was editor of New Horizon magazine and assistant editor of Islamic Tourism magazine as well as contributing on a regular basis to The Middle East Magazine. She also worked as London correspondent for JANA News Agency.