A new exhibition with style, elegance and a wealth of history delves into the unique power and fashion sense of Senegalese women.
The National Museum of African Art show “Good as Gold: Fashioning Senegalese Women” keeps a tight focus on the gold itself, tracing the history of the precious metal in the region and its importance to a woman’s fashioning of self and place in West African society. As the exhibition showcases, each exquisite, intricate piece of gold jewelry serves as a symbol of a woman’s status and political prowess — connecting political, historical, familial and religious identities in a single, striking fashion statement.
“For me, gold is like a wonderful story that is only enhanced through the retelling. And it is that enduring wonder, that incredible quality, that this exhibition celebrates,” the museum’s director, Gus Casely-Hayford, said.
“Many of the makers are now lost to history, but we mustn’t forget to acknowledge their audacious brilliance,” he added.
The exhibition stems from a gift by art historian Marian Ashby Johnson, who researched gold and jewelry for decades in Senegal. Her collection includes over 250 pieces of West African jewelry, as well as almost 2,000 field and archival photographs. The show very much feels like a life’s work is on display, and this deep understanding helps build an impressive narrative for visitors about the importance of gold and jewelry to Senegalese women.
Amanda Maples, guest curator of the exhibition, said, “This is primarily a story about women. It’s also a story about fashion, the city as an urban center, and about fashioning an identity and a platform for women.”
Complicated twists and braids, as well as depictions of everything from butterflies to flowers, decorate the pieces on display. Again and again, the artistry and technical skill of each goldsmith emerges from the pieces, along with a sense of the unique style of each woman the item was made for.
Beyond the pieces of gold jewelry and the history they tell, the exhibition also showcases a stunning contemporary creation. The National Museum of African Art commissioned fashion designer Oumou Sy — Senegal’s so-called “Queen of Couture” — to create a new haute couture ensemble for and inspired by the exhibition. It’s a beautiful, bold piece that centers the show, providing a link between contemporary design and historical memory.
While visitors could easily wander through the show transfixed alone by the glittering pieces on display, the curators do an excellent job of telling the history and roles of Senegalese women through gold. One critical issue the show delves into is the Senegalese concept of sañse, from the Wolof tribe, which means “dressing up” or looking and feeling good. It’s about crafting and presenting a public persona — an idea truly at the heart of “Good as Gold,” which seriously considers the way a woman in Senegal may have used a piece of gold jewelry to build her fashion and take control of her own image.
“I really wanted a full, head-to-toe, breathtaking ensemble … [to show] how much importance goes into dressing well,” Maples said.
The exhibition takes a fascinating, and feminist, approach to jewelry and fashion — and the way these elements play into political and personal power. Beauty and fashion, it reminds viewers, are far from a mere empty, vacant gesture.
“It is an exquisite exhibition. And, wandering around, it left me thinking of three enduring thoughts: West African gold, it’s an incredible material, different in my mind due to its sumptuous, lustrous quality — different to gold from anywhere else,” Casely-Hayford said.
“But also the tradition of goldsmithing, particular to West Africa, that tradition of making and remaking. And also that other thing that this exhibition celebrates, which is history, which is the way in which this incredible, durable material is a wonderful way of celebrating many of the things this institution was formed to celebrate: community, continuity, history, and all of them in their own ways fragile,” Casely-Hayford added. “But when celebrated through this incredibly enduring and glorious material, they become all the more magnificent.”
Good as Gold: Fashioning Senegalese Women
through Sept. 29
National Museum of African Art
950 Independence Ave., SW.
(202) 633-4600 | https://africa.si.edu
About the Author
Mackenzie Weinger (@mweinger) is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.