As a child I used to love watching women gather together at celebrations. Everything about them, from their clothes to their jewelry, even to their stories was the product of the utmost care and attention.
At each gathering, I would watch them decorating the sweet cakes, adorning fabrics or crafting palm fronds. They held a magnetic attraction for me. My eyes would follow the smooth, graceful movement of their hands and the careful, deliberate strokes of their handiwork. The patterns they used were everywhere, from the braids in their hair, to their clothes and within the intricate decorations of their traditional jewelry.
Those patterns extend everywhere, but it is their presence in tattoos that has always fascinated me. There is something in their shape that has always dazzled and bewildered me. There is something in the notion of skin indelibly marked with ink that holds a fascination for me that’s difficult to explain.
A memoir of tattoos or hammering ‘Daq’
Tattooing is often considered one of the most traditional customs, in that it uses the human body to communicate its most basic message. Looked at from today’s perspective, it can be hard to imagine that tattoos were once an integral part of the Libyan tradition, especially when you consider that it is the human body that is the subject of decoration and not simply a piece or paper or a rug.
The process itself is as simple as it can be painful. Sharp instruments, such as sewing needles are used to repeatedly stab at the skin, (to dag) drawing blood at the same time as time implanting the kohl, (the traditional black dye used by local women as eye makeup) to create the tattoo. However, despite the relatively basic nature of their production, tattoos provide a platform from which the imagination can run riot. The needle can travel in limitless directions, creating any number shapes and symbols. Some tattoos feature religious patterns, others contain numbers or feature animals, with the camel and the Phoenician Goddess, Tanit, being the most common.
According to historian, Souad Abou Barnoussa, “Decoration of the body in Libya dates back to the Neolithic era. Some of the rock art at the sites of Tassili and Acacus show people with tattoos. Tattoos appear around the same time as the camel phase in rock art”
Tattoos in other arts
With the traditional art of tattooing now running close to extinction, I have been searching for the symbols and patterns featured within them elsewhere. I was particularly struck by the work of the artist, Adel el Fortia and the patterns he uses in his fabric paintings, which closely resemble the traditional patterns women used to use to decorate their foreheads and chins.
Much of Adel’s work is about translating Libya’s ancient traditions into contemporary art. In this way, the fabrics Adel produces almost serve as photographs of Libya’s women, in that they capture something of language of their tattoos and, in turn, something of their souls.
Adel’s paintings, with their abstract style, capture something of the meaning and language of Libya’s tattoos. His paintings also preserve something of the symbolism of this ancient craft. Through Adel’s work, we still have a record of the shapes and symbols that once inspired these women and gave them a means of communicating beyond language.
“I knew from my research that it was the women from the more prominent families who used to tattoo themselves.” Adel said, “What I’ve tried to adopt in my fabric paintings is something of their approach to body art.” With an academic background in philosophy and semiotics, Adel’s work goes beyond simply replicating the ancient patters. “My art is an attempt to create a separate language to that used in their tattoos, which reflects it without exactly mirroring it. Tattoos, like any talisman, are mysterious and should always remain so.”
Adel has also pursued the culture and history of tattoos as an academic subject, recently delivering a lecture, The Artistic Status of the Libyan Tattoo at the Academy of Fine Art in Tripoli, in partnership with the Italian Libyan Centre.
Though tattoos may have left the female body, their power and message remain, preserved within the work of artists such as Adel El Fortia and within institutions such as the Academy of Fine Art that have safeguarded the Libyan identity for decades.