Gold is pride. —Zeynab Ly
Commenting on her mother’s gold jewelry in Good as Gold exhibition, in conversation with Amanda Maples.

Lush bouquets of gold flowers in baskets woven of gold threads adorn a suite of jewelry from Senegal now on display in the Harn’s exhibition Peace, Power and Prestige: Metal Arts of Africa (ill. 1). Designed by Oumou Sy, a prominent fashion designer in Dakar (ill. 2), this opulent ensemble is much more than a dazzling body adornment. It speaks to the centuries-long history of elite Senegalese women, signares and their enduring impact on urban fashion and society in Senegal.

Jewelry ensemble in Harn collection by Oumou Sy and Bobo and his brothers (goldsmiths
ill. 1 Oumou Sy and Bobo and his brothers (goldsmiths), Jewelry ensemble in Harn collection, 2017-2018, Gold, silver, fiber, Varied dimensions, Museum purchase with funds from the Caroline Julier and James G. Richardson Acquisition Fund, Photograph by Randy Batista
Oumou Sy in Dakar
ill. 2 Oumou Sy discussing the Basket of Flowers jewelry ensemble with Bobo and brothers (goldsmiths), Dakar, 2018. Photograph by Macoumba N’Diaye.

Dr. Amanda Maples, Curator of African Art at the North Carolina Museum of Art, who arranged for the acquisition of the gold ensemble for the Harn, and recently curated the exhibition Good as Gold: Fashioning Senegalese Women for the Museum of African Art, Smithsonian, commented, “Senegal has some of Africa’s oldest gold mines that were exploited far earlier than in other parts of West Africa. Early on, women were also controlling a good deal of this trade; sending their slaves to the gold mines to bring back gold to their urban centers (usually Saint-Louis and Gorée Island) and fashioning the gold into jewelry for themselves and using it in trade, with the assistance of their often European husbands. Their facility with language, business savvy and knowledge of trade routes was particularly advantageous to Europeans and the women inherited the property once the men left. It was mutually beneficial and these women formed a new noble class. Even today women have little access to property ownership, so these women—these signares—still loom large in the mind’s-eye of women today.” (ill. 3)

Signare en grand costume by Stanislas Darondeau
ill. 3 Stanislas Darondeau, Signare en grand costume, engraving from watercolor, illustrated in Voyages à la Côte Occidentale d’Afrique: vues, scenes, croquis, 1890.

The legacy of influential, exquisitely dressed women continues today in the lives of contemporary women who identify as signares, in the gold jewelry and fashionable garments of urban women in Dakar, and in many forms of popular visual culture and in contemporary art. In their powerful and elegant portrayals of signares, the artist Fabrice Monteiro and his Senegalese women collaborators reconstruct and reimagine them as they hybridize historic and contemporary modes of fashion, as seen in the photograph Senegal Signare #1.

Wearing gold for important occasions, such as weddings, has become enshrined in urban Senegalese culture (ill 4). Women pool their resources to acquire gold jewelry, usually commissioning original designs from local artists. In acquiring, fashioning and wearing gold, women respond to ancient ideas of gold as a marker of wealth and high social status, but also see it as the essential ingredient for boosting the ineffable sense of looking and feeling good from head to toe, expressed in the word sañse. In clothing themselves with sumptuous clothing and lavish gold jewelry, a woman’s individual aesthetic preferences merge with the collective notion of sañse, conflating pride, beauty and even goodness. As anthropologist Hudita Nura Mustafa remarked, “In today’s Senegal…gold jewelry, luxury cloth and regal conduct are still the ideals of beauty. …Beauty is seen as a kind of goodness.”

Mariama Sakho modelling jewelry
ill. 4 Mariama Sakho modeling the wedding ensemble now in the Harn Museum of Art collection. Dakar 2018. Photograph by Macoumba N’Diaye.

Read more about the intertwined histories of gold jewelry and women in Senegal in Maples’s essay, ”Sañse and Self-Fashioning: Gold Jewelry, Women and Ensemble in Urban Senegal’ in the companion book for the exhibition, “Peace, Power and Prestige: Metal Arts in Africa” (University Press of Florida, 2020).