Desert Jewels bedazzle and bewilder SCAD

I can only assume that curators of African art are under contractual obligation always to paint the walls of their galleries terra cotta orange. Desert Jewels, an exhibition of North African jewelry from the Xavier Guerrand-Hermès collection currently on display at the ACA Gallery of SCAD trots out such clichéd decor, but fortunately offers more than enough visual flair to make the experience worthwhile.
Desert Jewels consists of dozens of exquisitely crafted necklaces, belt buckles, veils, and other bodily adornments showcasing an extraordinary array of styles and fabrication techniques. A series of photographs by some of the leading European photographers working in North Africa at the end of the 19th century, such as George Washington Wilson and J. Garrigues, accompanies the jewelry.
Among the highlights are a pair of early 20th-century Tuareg amulets — one a delicately inscribed plate, the other a cross studded with prominent rivets. Crafted in silver and hung from fine multistrand leather ropes, they're bedecked with leather fringes that seem both sensuous and sentient.

A group of Moroccan necklaces hangs along the gallery’s rear wall. They're massive, what in fashion parlance would be called chunky, and made from various combinations of amber, glass, stone and other materials strung on wool threads. Bright combinations of ruby red, golden brown and forest green cause the pieces to glow from within.
Despite the gorgeous craftsmanship on display, Desert Jewels doesn't avoid the traps into which many exhibitions of non-Western art and artifacts fall. Objects made over the course of two centuries by numerous cultures spanning thousands of miles are jumbled together with little context to elucidate a particular people or period.

No big deal? Imagine a curator throwing 1930s Midwestern bakelite bracelets together with modern Tiffany silver earrings from New York and early 19th-century Amish wedding bands. Without a well-articulated rationale, such a show would seem random at best. Yet we're meant to assume that a single sweep of the curatorial arm takes in both an 18th-century fibula from Tunisia and a late 20th-century Moroccan necklace with no further explanation.
Desert Jewels is a beautiful display, but a missed opportunity. Eye candy abounds, but a firmer scholarly hand would have made the exhibition as dazzling to the mind as it is to the eye.

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