Approaching the National Museum of African Art (NMAA), visitors were greeted by a banner advertising their recent exhibition, Good as Gold: Fashioning Senegalese Women (Fig. 1). The banner featured the image of an extravagantly dressed Senegalese woman, resplendent in her gravity-defying headdress (with matching dress and shawl), layers of gold jewelry, and a long pipe elegantly balanced between her lips. Photographed by Beninois-Belgian Fabrice Monteiro, the image functioned as the unofficial icon of Good as Gold, heralding the beauty of Senegalese jewelry and subtly introducing visitors to a key concept of the exhibition; sañse: “the presentation of an extraordinary public self—an extreme performance of elegance and sophistication” (Good as Gold exhibition).
Guest curator Amanda Maples, in collaboration with Smithsonian curator Kevin Dumouchelle, maximized the L-shaped space on sublevel 1 of the museum by creating an exhibition that was primarily composed of pieces from the collection of Marian Ashby Johnson, an art historian who conducted extensive research in Dakar, Senegal, beginning in the early 1960s. The diversity and documentation of Johnson's collection was staggering; not only was the exhibition an unofficial ode to her dedication to this underrepresented form of African art, it attested to her impartiality as a collector. The curators clearly invoked Johnson's approach through their exhibition design; all manner of Senegalese jewelry was represented, from the detailed and extravagant, such as a necklace featuring an oversized basket of flowers (Fig. 2), to the simple tokoro, a single strand of gold beads that reflects a woman's progression through life. The jewelry motifs were equally diverse; groundnuts were symbolically referenced as indicators of female entrepreneurship and economic independence, whereas one bracelet's motifs were dubbed “automobile tire” due to their bulbous, spherical shapes. In all, approximately 120 artworks were displayed in four discrete, yet overlapping sections: “To Shine: African Gold,” “Mining Gold's Past: Trade and Techniques,” “Women: Self-Fashioning Through Jewelry,” and “Global Jewelry: Senegal in Dialogue.” The exhibition ultimately celebrated the combined ingenuity of Senegal's skilled Tukulor and Wolof artisans and inventive, discerning women whose close collaborations with these artisans resulted in a glittering array of jewelry that attested to women's agency and their self-representations as politically, culturally, and globally informed.
After the exhibition's opening, African art historians used Twitter and Facebook to continually praise the exhibition's installation, with particular emphasis on the jewelry's complex, invisible mounts. These adulations were well deserved; each mount was made with the intent of supporting its corresponding article of jewelry without hindering the viewer's appreciation of its form and craftsmanship. Perhaps the most impressive mount was crafted for a necklace comprising multiple strands of beads (Fig. 3); the mount was barely visible, yet it echoed the fluidity and irregularity of the beaded strands, a clear testament to the technical ability of its fabricator. Additionally, the majority of jewelry was placed in freestanding cases, allowing visitors to examine the complexity of each piece from all angles, encouraging “close looking.” The pieces were placed at an appropriate height for visitors not only to inspect, but to imagine how the articles might appear on their own bodies. These understated elements of installation coalesced into a powerful means for inspiring appreciation among visitors; without question, this exhibition was an absolute triumph of installation.
From the NMAA mezzanine, visitors were enticed into the exhibition by its elaborate and decorative exterior walls. Painted a light shade of blue, the walls were emblazoned with large-scale illustrations of specific jewelry pieces, interspersed between an enlarged image of a Jeune Senegalaise historical postcard and a recessed wall case containing a singular gold heart, suspended from an undulating chain. This assortment of images and object served as an eye-catching preview for the exhibition that lay just beyond the threshold.
Surprisingly, the first piece of jewelry visitors encountered was not Senegalese, but Ashanti. Seemingly suspended in midair, an Ashanti soul washer's badge (akrafokonmu) served as the introduction to the exhibition's first section, “To Shine: African Gold.” This section was intended to familiarize visitors with the more widely recognized forms of African gold, including a Fante linguist's staff (okyeame poma) and a Baule flywhisk. Although I appreciated the overview, particularly for visitors unfamiliar with the breadth of gold-embellished African artworks, it was an unexpected detour in the exhibition's overarching narrative, one that may have distracted from the themes of the exhibition, including women's empowerment, creativity and agency.
The second section, “Mining Gold's Past: Trade and Techniques,” summarized the complex history of gold mining and trade in West Africa, with a particular emphasis on the importance of Senegalese gold and goldsmiths. The standout label in this section was “Goldsmithing Techniques,” which featured detailed descriptions of the five main techniques for creating Senegal's intricate gold jewelry: gold plating, granulation (thioup-thioup), filigree (rof indienne), hammering, and wire drawing. This explanation, complete with images indicating each technique, aided visitors in understanding the complex process behind specific adornments, such as the luxuriant bat u ganare (neck of the rooster) bracelet (Fig. 4), which literally bristled with a melding of wire drawing, hammered metal, and granulation.
The last two sections, “Women: Self-Fashioning Through Jewelry” and “Global Jewelry: Senegal in Dialogue,” were relatively fluid and included the majority of the extravagant jewelry on display. These two sections addressed a myriad of important subjects, ranging from a comprehensive explanation of sañse to a nuanced and honest discussion of signares, powerful, mixed-race women of the colonial era who have become revered and contested icons of Senegalese culture and history. Along one wall, cases displayed jewelry that invoked the old adage “all that glitters is not gold” (Fig. 5). Crafted from a mixture of nonprecious materials including straw, plaster, and thread, these adornments are meant to imitate their more prohibitive golden forms. Easily dismissed, this section was particularly significant, as it provided clear evidence that an elite form of dress can (and does) have mass appeal, being consumed and enacted by economically diverse Senegalese women.
A relatively new technique that the curators employed successfully is the use of catchy, descriptive phrases, printed in a contrasting color, that functioned as concise summations for each object label. For example, “dressed tresses” served as a pithy preview for a label explaining gossi, wigs frequently adorned with gold ornaments. Unfortunately, many of the labels were placed in inconspicuous locations, resulting in important labels being easily overlooked. A particularly evocative label that explained the sounds associated with gold bangles as an important element of a woman's overall comportment was easily overshadowed by other objects. Additionally, the text devoted to sañse, the foremost concept in understanding Senegalese dress and adornment, was relegated to one of the gallery's alcoves, easily missed by visitors who chose not to venture into the space.
Curators of global dress and fashion must continually ask themselves: How can the body be incorporated into an exhibition, while maintaining a degree of sensitivity and avoiding invocations of the maligned diorama? Good as Gold had the answer, found in Oumou Sy's commissioned ensemble (Fig. 6). The product of a collaboration between designer and curatorial team, the resplendent ensemble provided the viewer with a direct representation of sañse, illustrating the importance of jewelry in relation to an extravagant and complete outfit. This particular display imparted a powerful presence; for me, it was the most profound element of this exhibition, as it melded scholarly research and investigation with a relatable and engaging visual display.
In all, the exhibition was as dazzling as its individual artworks. In a recent piece for NPR, Oumou Sy explained sañse as: “to dare … to present yourself in your finest without fear” (Aizenman 2019). Sy's explanation was also fitting for Good as Gold, as it presented some of the finest jewelry I've seen. The exhibition was on display through September 29, 2019 at NMAA before it travels to the North Carolina Museum of Art in 2020. A ninety-six page exhibition catalogue is also available.