African-European coproduction An opportunity for the future

Decolonization and postcolonial development cooperation: Agadez Design
Postcolonial development cooperation: Agadez Design | Photo (detail): © Maik Reichert

It’s considered unique, the Tuareg craft of art smithing. The Italian jewellery design industry has been influenced by the forms from Niger for centuries, and is now actively promoting the preservation of these traditional skills. A multimedia reportage.

By Sarah Wollberg (texts, interviews) and Maik Reichert (photos/camera)

In the centre of Rome, just a few metres away from the Colosseum, you’ll find Agadez. For twenty years the jeweller’s shop owned by Maria Antonietta Sutto and Zaccaria Yahaya has been a trading place in which Tuareg workmanship merges with Italian design.

Maria Antonietta is a designer from Milan. Zaccaria comes from a recognised Tuareg family of artsmiths from Niger. “When I saw Antonietta’s drawings in Italy, it became clear to me who I am and where I come from,” he told us. She in turn finds that many idioms from the Tuareg culture crop up in Italy, because their influence reached as far as the shores of the Mediterranean. “The strong identity of the Tuareg inspired me. I add my own creativity to the traditional symbols.”

Together they take Antonietta’s drawings to the city of Agadez in Niger, where the artsmiths produce the jewellery pieces. The Tuareg artsmiths have a practical skill that no longer exists in Europe today. “We’re talking about premium quality here with regard to craftsmanship, materials and design. They are the only things of their kind anywhere in the world,” explains Antonietta, showing us the silver cross of Agadez and the Berber Amazigh symbol.

Uniqueness and appreciation

An enquiry was made by MOMA in New York about the lamp in the form of an antique jewellery box that hangs over the shop counter. Not only does she base her creations on these forms and symbols, she also uses the finest materials from the Tuareg tradition, such as silver and ebony. “The Tuareg culture is a myth that’s known all over the world. Today the younger generation growing up there are finally becoming aware of its value.”

In danger

But the situation in Niger is difficult. The war in Libya and European political situation have caused security problems and isolation. Tourism and economic exchange are extremely limited in the country. “I’m afraid that the Tuareg will become a postcard. Europe and the whole world should pay special attention to this rich culture. I’m talking about the Tuareg, because I’m talking about myself – but all the cultures of Africa should be brought into the limelight!” explains Zaccarias Appell.
  • This lamp by Agadez Design also hangs in the MoMA, the Museum of Modern Art in New York. © Maik Reichert
    This lamp by Agadez Design also hangs in the MoMA, the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
  • Tower of the Grand Mosque, Agadez, Niger. Founded before the 14th century, Agadez grew to become the most important city of the Tuareg people. The mosque was originally built in the 16th century and rebuilt in the same style in 1844. © Maik Reichert
    Tower of the Grand Mosque, Agadez, Niger. Founded before the 14th century, Agadez grew to become the most important city of the Tuareg people. The mosque was originally built in the 16th century and rebuilt in the same style in 1844.
  • The Tuareg people belong to the indigenous Berber ethnic group settling in North Africa. For centuries, the Tuaregs lived as nomads in the territory of today's states of Mali, Algeria, Niger, Libya and Burkina Faso. Today many of them have settled down. © Maik Reichert
    The Tuareg people belong to the indigenous Berber ethnic group settling in North Africa. For centuries, the Tuaregs lived as nomads in the territory of today's states of Mali, Algeria, Niger, Libya and Burkina Faso. Today many of them have settled down.
  • Zaccaria Yahaya with jewellery by Agadez Design © Maik Reichert
    Zaccaria Yahaya with jewellery by Agadez Design
  • Jewellery by Agadez Design © Maik Reichert
    Jewellery by Agadez Design
  • Necklace by Agadez Design © Maik Reichert
    Necklace by Agadez Design
If a culture isn’t supported with sustainable projects, it disappears. It’s time for a paradigm shift. One look at the shop and into the eyes of Maria Antonietta and Zaccaria is enough to understand how important this is.