Courtesy of National Museum of African Art
Courtesy of National Museum of African Art

Who says diamonds are a girl’s best friend?

In Senegal and other parts of Africa, women turn to the enduring gold standard as the choice for jewelry. “Good as Gold: Fashioning Senegalese Women,” now on view at the National Museum of African Art, shows how women of the West African nation have designed, wore and repurposed gold jewelry through the ages.

The exhibit, which is the first major showing of gold jewelry to date, focuses on the history of Senegal’s prolific gold industry and the way the ornamentation has figured into the role and fashion of Senegalese women, past and present.

Courtesy of National Museum of African Art

Comprised mainly of items gifted to the National Museum of African Art by art historian Marion Ashby Johnson, the pieces displayed in “Good as Gold” reflect her decades of research resulting in the collection of more than 250 works of West African jewelry. The collection is supplemented with nearly 2,000 field and archival photographs and a selection of loans of photographs and related jewelry items from private lenders and public institutions in the U.S. and abroad.

“Senegal is like the El Dorado of Africa,” Johnson said. “Gold jewelry was handled by the blacksmith/goldsmith caste. As they worked more with gold jewelry, it became monetarily important for them. The castes was responsible for creating jewelry, but also putting gold into people’s mouths, so the goldsmiths were extremely important to Senegalese society.”

While the goldsmiths who created the jewelry — which included earrings, bracelets, necklaces of all dimensions and rings — were men, the actual designers of the jewelry were the women who commissioned the pieces.

“They had a special relationship with the women, despite the fact that they were from a lower caste” than the women, who were primarily from the upper castes who could afford the gold, Johnson said. “Gold was used for marriages, births and naming ceremonies. Ateliers were competitive and that was greatly publicized.”

The exhibit opens with pieces made in gold from other cultures, such as the Baulé of Côte D’Ivoire who created delicate small figures and combs with the precious metal. Other cultures, such as the Ashanti in Ghana also had a gold-centered culture, but the Senegalese gold work is different.

“Ghana is more solid,” Johnson said of the country’s gold pieces. “Senegal is filigree and that is what makes it unique. It is the style that makes the difference.”

Courtesy of National Museum of African Art

And while other metals had to be added to the gold to make it not only affordable, but durable and workable, women did not hesitate to pass the jewelry down to other family members and frequently had it melted down to create new pieces, which Johnson made sure she documented the works in photograph showing the pieces in their original forms.

The centerpiece of the spatially small but voluminous exhibit in the newly renovated gallery, is a mannequin of a signare fashioned by Senegalese designer Oumou Sy, considered the “Queen of Couture” in her country and overseas.

Signare was the name for the Mulatto French-African women of the island of Gorée and the St. Louis communities in French Senegal during the 18th and 19th centuries. These women of color managed to gain independent assets, status and power in the hierarchies of the Atlantic Slave Trade. They traditionally dressed in fully covered, layered apparel in order to avoid becoming darkened by the sun, according to Sy.

“Good as Gold: Fashioning Senegalese Women,” is accompanied by a well-researched catalogue by lead curator Amanda Maples, curator of African art at the North Carolina Museum of Art and Marion Ashby Johnson, who earned her doctorate in art history and history from Stanford University, when she did her extensive fieldwork and interviews starting in the mid-1960s. She went on to teach art history at Brigham Young University in Utah where she currently resides.

“Good as Gold” is the first exhibition in a series of exhibits and programs celebrating African women’s artistic prowess. In the spring, it will be joined by “I Am: Contemporary African Women Artists,” a major presentation of contemporary works from the museum’s collection by women artists.

Courtesy of National Museum of African Art

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