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A kohl flask from Yemen

A collection is never complete. One can always collect more objects and there is always one more variation that isn’t part of the collection just yet. A few months after I finished my book “Paint it, Black, A Biography of Kohl Containers”, a rare and amazing kohl container came on my path and since then I have collected a few new containers from several different places around the world. Of course, should there ever be a reprint of the book, these containers will most certainly be in there to complete the story of the material culture of this form of body decoration. For now, we will have to do with this blog post. It has been some time since I have last blogged here and I feel describing some of the new containers is a nice occasion.

The kohl container on the foreground was made and used in Yemen. I purchased it from the gallery of Michael Backman on the day I launched my book in London and did a presentation at the Backman gallery. We have also taping a podcast on kohl containers that day. Should you like to learn more, here is the link to the podcast. The Yemeni container was most probably made around the middle of the 20th century and is made of a traditional silver bead, a hollow dugag or bedihi bead, to which a foot was added and an the opening of a small neck was forged.

The hollow bead makes a unique container and receptor compartment for kohl, decorated with very fine granulation. The decoration on these hollow beads is made by soldering small silver granules, also called šaḏir, and coiled silver wire onto the surface. I have taken some detailed photographs so you can see the elements of this technique. Also, strips of silver are soldered onto this surface sometimes with an added extra decoration of pressed, small slits. A substance called tinkar or "glue of the silversmith", with similar properties to borax (often used as a flux in silversmithing), was traditionally used in Yemen for the purpose of soldering. In this manner two separate silver pieces were temporarily glued together (especially for applying granules or both half spheres of a bead) and were then forged together by heat. For many of these beads and for the production of other silver objects, the famous Maria Theresa Thalers were often used. These coins were a regular source of silver for the production of Yemeni jewelry and other objects.

A similar, though more crudely made container was already part of the Wearable Heritage Collection and is described in my book on page 348. These beads are used mostly in wedding jewelry. In this case a needle is connected by a silver chain to the cap that was meant to cover the opening of the kohl flask. The flask is forged onto an elegant and open foot. It is interesting to compare both dugag containers and see the similarities and differences between the two. Both containers are made of hollow beads, although the one presented here for the first time is a much finer one with a high silver content. The other one is an alloy with more copper added to the silver, hence the somewhat yellowish hue. The details of this particular flask are remarkable and the small bells that decorate the container are a rare and an amazing addition on this particular one. Great craftsmanship forged this bead!

Detail of the Yemeni kohl flask and needle

Kohl containers are part of an age-old tradition of body decoration and make up. Many cultures in the West Asian and North African region use some sort of flasks to store this eye paint. Often, the appearance and the material of the flask displays the domain to which the containers belong in that region. For Yemen, the silver kohl flasks, locally called mukhule are cultural markers and part of the jewelry repertoire. This flask was therefore most likely part of the bridal trousseau of its previous owner, a woman no doubt. She probably used it on a daily basis for applying dark lines around her eyes and perhaps to darken her eyebrows as well, especially on days of festivities and during ceremonies of rites of passage.

Jewelers mark on the top of the Yemeni container

Above: Details of the Yemeni kohl flask (the one on the right) already published in Paint it, Black (p.348)

Should you like to read more on kohl flasks, please check out my book Paint it, Black, via this link

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