GOOD AS GOLD

Smithsonian exhibit shows how Sengalese women have historically used jewelry as a means of fashioning an identify of power and prestige.

National Museum of African Art
Oumou Sy— Senegal’s “Queen of Couture” was commissioned by the National Museum of African Art and created this elaborate, new haute couture ensemble inspired by the strength and savoir-faire of Senegalese women.

BY PENNY DICKERSON
SPECIAL TO THE FLORIDA COURIER 

The measure of a woman’s worth has historically been associated with her appearance. An arguable Western society bias, the latter conceptually crosses the African Diaspora to the coast of Dakar – the cosmopolitan capital of Senegal where aesthetics both define and convey more than an affinity for fashion but transcend wealth, aristocracy, prestige and preference. 

Beyond exquisite attire tailored from vibrant Dutch wax fabrics and textiles, the complementary adornment of gold as a fashion statement serves as the foundation for “Good as Gold,” curated to “engage, captivate and invite” patrons to indulge a relevant, yet underrepresented sector of West African culture. 

Gift of gold 

Generosity with a capital “G” aptly personifies Marian Ashby Johnson, an art historian who bestowed 250 private collection pieces to the National Museum of African Art in 2012.

Johnson trekked the globe for numerous decades including Senegal in her travels to observe goldsmith techniques from jewelers, or teugues, whose contributions ultimately help compile a collection supplemented by nearly 2,000 field and archival photographs.

Her research “highlights the delicate and refined work of Wolof and Tukulor goldsmiths and the spectacular jewelry designs commissioned by Senegalese women.” 

The exhibition contains 120 objects from Johnson’s collection and is enhanced with a selection of loans, photographs and related jewelry items from private lenders and public institutions in the U.S. and overseas. 

“Connecting Dr. Johnson’s generosity with the work of our curatorial, archival and conservation researchers, the ‘Good as Gold’ project demonstrates and celebrates the National Museum of African Art’s commitment to leadership in the collection, care, scholarship and display of excellence in the full range of Africa’s visual arts,” offered Kevin D. Dumouchelle, Ph.D., who joined the Smithsonian in 2016 as in-house curator of the National Museum of African Art.

National Museum of African Art
IMAGE BY FRANKO KHOURY, SMITHSONIAN INSTITUTE
This necklace was created by a Wolof artist in the mid-20th century. A key theme of the exhibit is the concept of sañse (Wolof for “dressing up” or looking and feeling good) (Left Image). A butterfly necklace/pendant was created by a Wolof or Tukulor artist (1930s-1950s) (Right Image).

Pride abounds 

“Breathtaking” is the singular word that former U.S. Ambassador to Senegal Harriet Elam-Thomas emoted following her summer visit to the exhibit. A subjective voice of authority, Elam-Thomas completed two tours of duty in Senegal over a 40-year career as a U.S. diplomat. 

National Museum of African Art
Harriett Elam-Thoma

“I am proud that another woman made it her life’s work to discover gold’s relevance and further bestowed it to the Smithsonian so the public can learn what gold meant to the country,” said Elam-Thomas.

“While serving as an assistant cultural attaché` from 1975-77, I noticed an innate sense of pride exuded by Senegalese women. I was 32 years old and even at that young age, it reminded me of women going to church in their Sunday best…” explained Elam-Thomas who added the following:

“When I returned 28 years later as U.S. ambassador, my White colleagues said I always dressed like an ambassador…Well, you go to work looking a certain way, and you dress for the occasion.  Senegalese women have mastered that concept. Even on the Ivory Coast, I never saw women look as good as they did in Senegal. They could be poor as dirt, but still walked down the street with pride, head held high.” 

COURTESY OF MARIANE IBRAHIM GALLERY
The exhibit’s signature print is by Fabrice Monteiro, born in 1972 in Namur Belgium.

Showcasing history 

Amid quiet lighting, the installation displays pristine cases showcasing jeweled objects intricately detailed, technically complex, and culturally distinct. 

According to Dumouchelle, each case has an inner liner of dessicants, composed of silica gels, that serve to stabilize the relative humidity inside. The results are a “micro-climate’’ that helps to prevent corrosion and other adverse environmental reactions to metal-based works.

“Good as Gold” inspires awe as patrons tour a relaxed labyrinth unique to museum settings.  The visual journey is edifying, and plentiful are educational insights gained from storyboards mounted along walls offering brief narratives of adjacent jewelry.

Amanda Maples, Ph.D., served as guest curator and lead author of the exhibit’s catalog, “Good as Gold: Fashioning Senegalese Women.’’ An African art expert, Maples worked closely with Dumouchelle and the two traveled to Senegal in 2017 conducting related research.

“While most of the objects in the exhibition were made by men, the designs, styles and names of such works are by women and “Good as Gold’ reveals the ways in which Senegalese women have historically used jewelry as a means of fashioning a cosmopolitan identity of power and prestige,” Maples related. 

Marian Ashby Johnson (left) is shown with artist Habibou Sissoko and his assistants at his atelier in Dakar, Senegal. She bestowed 250 private collection pieces to the National Museum of African art in 2012.

Exalting women and fashion 

Described within Smithsonian confines as “complex and women-driven,” the exhibit embodies a contextual reference extending from urban designers in Senegal who utilize contemporary fashion to define what is traditional, international, and chic. 

“This is primarily a story about women. It was of course a story about fashion, and I looked at fashion a lot around the city as an urban center and as a way of offering a sort of platform for women to use jewelry and sartorial expression to get by,” explained Maples in Smithsonian.com. 

To further amplify Senegal’s stature and fashion contributions to an industry dominated by American and European designers, the National Museum of African Art commissioned Oumou Sy – Senegal’s “Queen of Couture” and its most celebrated fashion designer— to create a new haute couture ensemble inspired by the strength and savoir-faire of Senegalese women. 

“My greatest delight with this show has been twofold. On the one hand, it has been inspiring to see the wonder, delight, and pride that so many of our visitors have taken away from their engagement with these objects, and the histories and stories that they represent,” summated Dumouchelle.

IF YOU GO

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. It’s closed on Christmas Day. Admission is free. The museum is located at 950 Independence Ave. S.W., near the Smithsonian. For more information, call 202-633-4600 or visit the National Museum of African Art’s website at https://africa.si.edu.

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