‘Signare #1,’ by Fabrice Monteiro, is one of works featured in ‘Good as Gold’ at the National Museum of African Art in Washington, D.C.

“Good as Gold: Fashioning Senegalese Women” at the National Museum of African Art is everything an exhibit should be. Beyond the obvious criteria that gold works are beautiful creations of skilled artisans, this exhibit examines the many layers of political and social significance of gold in Senegalese life. In short, this is not just another exhibit about a traditional art, but rather about how traditions are created and adapted over time by the art.

What unfolds in the gallery of 250 jewelry, portraits and objects are the stories of those who play the main roles in this epic drama. There are the legendary signares, the powerful French–African women who in the 18th and 19th centuries derived their fortunes from a variety of sources, including their slaves sent to the gold mines, thus enabling them to this life of elegance.

Rooted in the Wolof concept of sañse (dressing up, looking and feeling good), they would go with a griot (a storyteller) to a teugue (goldsmith) to direct the design of the object they desired. The griot would sing the praises of the signare’s family to inspire the teugue to create jewelry that expressed their prestige in this precious metal.

These narratives are complex, the jewelry not only a sign of their sense of style but also of their strength, both in their economic savvy and in political activism. That power fueled their beauty as revealed in “Signare #1,” an exhibition print in which photographer Fabrice Monteiro used 21st-century models to reconstruct portraits of signares from a feminist perspective.

There were, of course, imitators of this rich tradition for those without access to such abundant wealth. Examples of “Timbuktu gold,” which were created with straw, plastic or thread to mimic gold are shown in a case in the exhibit.

While theirs is a tale worthy of a very long historical novel, the exhibit in the adjacent gallery, “I Am … Contemporary Women Artists of Africa,” which features the works of 27 artists from 10 African countries, is like a collection of short stories, each one unique to its artist, subject and media.

These are bold works that address issues like the environment, identity, race, sexuality, social activism and faith. In sharp contrast to the appeal of gold, consider the use of aluminum: “Untitled,” by Batoul S’Himi from the series “World Under Pressure,” is a kitchen pot with a carved-out a map of the world, ready to boil over.

Or of mixed fabrics for what might be considered jewelry in another setting. A cascade of faux pearls are a leftover lost amid a romantic encounter and strewn across old black leather back seat of a car in Frances Goodman’s wall hanging “Skin on Skin.”

While the materials to make art are as unique to each piece, what each share is that the media is integral to the work. Wangechi Mutu’s “Tree Woman”—made of paper pulp, soil, wood, rice and steel—is an example that such materials reflect our co-existence within the magnificence of nature.

Textiles are a significant cultural tradition and so it is fitting that a work like Chief Nike Davies-Okundaye give homage in “Liberal Women Protest I and II.” Using mixed media finished with acrylic on canvas, she portrays women in their finest attire engaged in nonviolent forms of protest against a backdrop of the historical textile art of adire.

Likewise in “Constant Gardener,” Billie Zangewa uses Dupion silk and synthetic thread to unite the idea of sewing as a matter of identity as reflected in the luminous material.

Beyond the choice of materials, the two exhibits in adjacent galleries invite comparison.

Set in the center of “I Am … Contemporary Women Artists of Africa” is Patience Torlowei’s stunning silk gown “Esther,” with its gold background painted with images of the exploitation with oil and diamond extractions and the horrors of struggle of war. Torlowei, who has outstanding success with her internal design house, created this gown as a memorial to her mother. Looking through the glass doorways into “Good as Gold,” there is a glittering ensemble by Senegal’s “Queen of Couture” Oumou Sy that evokes the historical memory of the signares. These two dazzling fashion acquisitions of the NMAA collection, in adjoining galleries, give pause to consider the contrasts of the riches of the mines as sources of both for beauty and human exploitation.

Coincidental to their placement, the diversity and relevance of the two exhibits, when viewed together offer consideration of issues, giving a wide range for the viewer to go beyond the confines of the galleries focused on the African continent, and to think in terms of a world view.

Sheila Wickouski, a former Fredericksburg resident, is a freelance reviewer for The Free Lance–Star.

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