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Gem gals! There’s an amazing museum exhibition that opened recently, and it’s all about gold jewelry! But not just gold. Gold filigree! Perhaps I haven’t shared yet, but I am IN LOVE with filigree! In fact, one of my directions to my now-husband was that my wedding ring MUST have filigree. (If you’re interested in seeing my wedding ring, click here.)
So, if you are in or near the Washington, D.C. area, I highly encourage you to head over to the National Museum of African Art. And you’re in for a treat, because Good As Gold: Fashioning Senegalese Women will be there through the end of September. And because it’s part of the Smithsonian, it’s FREE!
What is filigree?
Now, you’re probably wondering what the heck filigree is and why I’m such a fan. It’s an old (ancient, actually) jewelry technique where you use threads and strands of metal to create intricate designs. They end up almost looking like lace, but made of metal. The word filigree actually comes from the Latin word “filum,” which means thread. You can use gold or silver or other metals like brass to make filigree designs. People have been using this technique for a long time, since at least 2500 B.C.
The exciting thing about the exhibit is that I had always thought I knew who made filigree. I had always heard of filigree being made in Portugal, or India. Even the island of Malta. Never had I heard of artisans from Senegal. This is why I love museums – I’m always learning something new!
Good as Gold: Fashioning Senegalese Women, is an exhibit showcasing jewelry from the master goldsmiths of Senegal. Don’t feel bad, I had to consult my globe to figure out where exactly Senegal was, too!
This is the first major exhibition of Senegalese gold jewelry ever to focus on how the women of the country used gold to adorn themselves, as well as the history of gold in the region.
The bulk of the collection on display comes from art historian Marian Ashby Johnson. She gave a gift of over 250 jewelry pieces in 2012. She and her husband lived in Senegal for several years. Marian was horrified to discover goldsmiths were melting down old pieces for more modern designs. Appalled at the destruction of art, she bought up as much as she possibly could, over many, many years. To this day, she regrets she wasn’t able to buy more.
The rest of the collection comes from other museums and private collectors. All in all, it looks like something I need to see!
The power of women
While I was reading up about the exhibit, two words kept popping up – signares and sañse. Signares were local Senegalese women who married the Europeans. The Europeans, typically from France or Portugal, did not bring their wives or were unmarried. The wives lived an upper class existence, often speaking many many languages and very savvy about business and politics. The other word – sañse – means “dressing up” or “feeling good.” It’s a word from one of the local languages, Wolof.
Essentially, the signares were expert at sañse. The signares existed over generations. They lived a life between between two competing cultures – traditional African and European. So they created a unique blend of fashion. They had beautiful European dresses, but also brightly colored African fabrics, and heavy gold embellishments. Gold signified wealth, so the more gold, the better!
Sañse was all about presenting your best public self. It included jewelry, but also your hairstyle, your headscarf, your clothing, etc. A wealthy signare often had a house with three floors, where the bottom floor was was essentially devoted to goldsmiths and seamstresses for their extensive wardrobe and jewelry. I think I would like an arrangement like that!
You’ve probably figured out by now that the Europeans were in Senegal and making a tidy profit because of the slave trade. The trans-Atlantic slave trade went on for hundreds of years, from the late 1400’s all the way to the 1800’s. So these fashionable women and their gorgeous jewelry were part of that story. Their husbands were likely involved in the slave trade in some capacity.
Does that mean we shouldn’t celebrate these women or the beautiful jewelry they wore? I don’t think so. I’m a big believer of placing everything in context. The truth is that how a woman presented herself back then way was key to her success, both financial and social. A woman with elaborate jewelry and clothing shows that she is cared about and connected, and that was a powerful statement to make.
Take a trip!
I am already plotting my trip to our capital before this exhibit closes. What about you? Interested? Already visited? Tell me, I’d love to hear what you think!