Senegal’s Stunning Gold Jewelry … And The Controversial Women Who Wore It

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Imagine if we'd never heard of China's Ming dynasty vases, Russia's Fabergé eggs or Ghana's Kente cloth.

Yet it so happens that Senegal boasts an artistic practice just as unparalleled — but which has largely gone unrecognized beyond its borders: For centuries goldsmiths there have been crafting some of the world's most intricate gold jewelry.

And it's a tradition with a fascinating history, dating to the 12th century and intimately connected to a powerful class of women whose rise in the 1700s was impressive ... and morally complicated.

Now the Smithsonian's National Museum of African Art in Washington, D.C. is showcasing this jewelry and the history behind it in an exhibit that runs through September 29, 2019.

My first tour guide through the exhibit is the somewhat unlikely collector who largely made it possible – Marian Ashby Johnson, a retired art history professor from Provo, Utah, who donated most of the pieces on display. I spot her peering into a glass case containing an enormous necklace — three pendants of elaborately layered gold.

"I'm still admiring my own pieces of jewelry," she says chuckling. "They bring back so many memories."

The memories begin in 1963, when Johnson joined her husband on a work trip to Senegal's capital Dakar. Walking the streets she noticed row upon row of hole-in-the wall workshops where artisans were crafting gold jewelry unlike anything she'd ever seen.

It was made from filigree — a gold wire that's impossibly thin – which they twisted and layered into astonishingly delicate, lacelike forms.

Johnson was so enthralled she decided to get a Ph.D. in art history — with Senegalese goldwork as her specialty. But as she began spending time in the workshops Johnson realized goldsmiths were melting down many of the older pieces to make modern designs.

She decided to buy up as many as she could: "I realized I should do this now or it wouldn't be done at all."

Many items she couldn't afford. So she'd watch as exquisite designs were destroyed right in front of her.

"Some of them I found copies of later. But in many cases they were gone-gone. I never found them again."

Still Johnson ultimately managed to amass more than 250 pieces — the best of which have formed the core of this Smithsonian exhibit.

Amanda Maples, the curator, says she felt that as important as highlighting the jewelry was telling the story of the women who've been wearing this jewelry for hundreds of years — particularly that group of 18th- and 19th-century women who ushered in the jewelry's heyday and whose influence still reverberates through Senegalese culture.

Known as signares – the term derives from the Portuguese word for lady, "senhora" – they were the mixed-race descendants of European merchants and high status Senagelese women. By the 1700s many of them had emerged as independent businesswomen in their own right. The typical signare might own ships, manage trade networks, employ men. She would speak several European languages as well as the local language, Wolof. And, says Maples, she would be renowned for her patronage of musicians, her glittering dinner parties and — most of all — her opulent fashions.

The signares "had the most voluminous cloth ensembles and really bright huge gold jewelry," says Maples. "I mean they had the biggest gold jewelry. And they would parade through town so people could see how much wealth they had and how successful they were."

Oumou Sy is a top fashion designer from Senegal. The Smithsonian commissioned her to re-create a signare's outfit. At the exhibit she pointed out the signature features:

"The head wrap in a conical 'sugar loaf' shape," she noted. The gown of sumptuous fabrics with huge puffed sleeves. And of course, "the jewelry is always gold filigree. Necklaces, earrings, bangles, toe rings."

But there's also an ugly side to the signare story, says Hudita Nura Mustafa, an anthropologist who has studied the influence of these women in current Senegalese culture: "This wealth and power and beauty was gained through morally ambiguous methods."

Mustafa notes that the signares generally built their wealth through intimate relationships with European traders — many of whom made their money either directly or indirectly through the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

The signares themselves also owned slaves, using them in their households or often renting them out to European traders to work as boat builders or boatmen.

But Mustafa says today's Senegalese are mindful that these were African women who found a way thrive at a time of European encroachment: "They are recognized and held up as icons of a negotiation — of being able to bridge and balance many worlds."

Hilary Jones, a professor at Florida International University, has written a history of mixed race peoples in Senegal. When modern women in Senegal consider the signares, she says, "what they see are women who were incredibly successful. Who created a kind of space for themselves against all odds."

And Oumou Sy, the fashion designer, says you can see the influence of the signares in the way modern Senegalese women use fashion to project dignity and self-assurance. It's an attitude so celebrated in Senegal it has a name: sanse.

"Sanse means to dare," says Sy. "To present yourself in your finest — without fear."

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