Date: 19th–20th century
Culture: Beja peoples
Medium: Cotton, leather, beads, cowrie shells, palm leaf
Dimensions: Width: 171 1/2 in. (435.6 cm)
Credit Line: Gift of Jerome Vogel and Susan Vogel in memory of Shirley Gordon Nichols, 1996
Accession Number: 1996.455
This monumental and elaborate creation is a tent divider, or te saqwit, from the Beja peoples of eastern Africa. Positioned on the threshold between day and night quarters, a te saqwit is an expansive, palm-fiber-lined canvas whose decorative motifs are related to Beja conceptions of love and fertility. The surface of the rich red textile features the application of a band of cowrie shells that extends around the perimeter of an interior field of beadwork arranged in complex geometric configurations of rectangles, disks, and triangles. The cowrie shells, crescent shapes, and full moons are related to female fertility. Cowrie shells are also associated with a divining system used by most Sudanese populations to predict the future. It has therefore been suggested that some of the decorative passages of this textile may be related to the clusters of elements that are cast by female diviners and visually interpreted during this practice. The embroidered emblems are also associated with livestock brands used in this pastoralist society as powerful protective symbols. This dynamic expanse of abstract decoration may also safeguard the household, an idea reinforced by another textile commonly found in Beja interiors that features a variety of Islamic symbols to deter spirit entities, or jinns, that are credited with inflicting madness.
The te saqwit is the visual centerpiece of the otherwise sparse Beja domestic interior. Bidago (individual Beja tents), surprisingly lightweight structures, are owned, assembled, and maintained by a household's principle female member. The design—curved ribs stretched between two main supports covered with palm-leaf mats—has remained consistent over several centuries. The interior space is split into two levels that are subdivided into four distinct areas. Use of the left half is limited to women, while the right half is reserved for men; the front area is reserved for daily chores and the raised rear area serves as the night quarters. The sleeping quarters are separated from the front of the tent by the te saqwit, which is hung from the rafters. The size of the tent is a sign of household wealth, and the visual appeal of the te saqwit is considered a direct reflection of the industriousness and good taste of its female owner.
The Beja are nomadic pastoralists who inhabit tent camps in the desert and semi-desert areas between the Nile and the Red Sea. Their itinerant communities may be moved on camelback within a matter of hours. The Beja generally establish their settlements in uninhabited sites that are occupied anywhere from a few days to a few years, depending on the appeal of its wells, pastures, and markets.
This work derives from an important tradition of African nomadic architecture and is absolutely unique–there are no other known examples in any Western collections. A monumental element designed to delimit an interior space, it is also significant in its blending of multiple artistic categories—it being an architectural element of an interesting multimedia nature.
Although this artwork appears on the 20th-century segment of the Timeline, it is ascribed a date of 19th–20th century.