Madame Bitèye is a successful grain entrepreneur who additionally plays a significant social role as Badienou Gokh: godmother of her neighborhood, providing financial and health support especially to women.
Good as Gold
Madame Kane is a longtime activist and schoolteacher instrumental in breaking the “supporting role” logic of women in politics by training women to generate their own income and to themselves become local elected officials.
Originally created for the United Nations in 2015, Be’s Empowering Women series highlights the strength and tenacity of women in Senegal through personal stories of perseverance, pride, and power. Each woman chose how to present herself—often in gold jewelry—and shared their personal experiences. Madame Aïdara owns an artisanal soap-making company, employing over 40 women.
Not smiling or faltering, these protagonists challenge the camera with looks of steadfast determination, questioning mainstream media portrayals of Africans and the underlying assumptions that come with them.
As evidenced in these portraits, historical gestures and bodily expressions linger in today’s self-imaging. Here, a granddaughter wearing her grandmother’s jewelry poses for the camera. The focus on the head and hands is reminiscent of the earliest of photographic posturing.
Marian Ashby Johnson’s donation to the National Museum of African Art showcases the delicate and refined work of the Wolof and Tukulor goldsmiths of Senegal. Building on extensive fieldwork and interviews starting in the mid-1960s, as well as museum and archival research in London, Chicago, Paris, and Senegal, Johnson assembled a unique collection of jewelry, accompanied by an archive of over 2,000 study images.
Together, they provide an almost encyclopedic overview of Senegalese taste and the role of gold jewelry in Senegal’s cultural, economic, and political history. Johnson’s research looks at the Bambouk goldfields of the Senegal River; documents the techniques, materials, and social class of goldsmiths (teugues); and reveals the inspirational and economic roles of women in commissioning, trading, and fashioning Senegalese jewelry. Johnson’s detailed research and generous gift provide a golden opportunity to understand the breadth and complexity of gold in Senegal.
Continuing with Johnson’s groundbreaking research, from 2013 onward curator Amanda M. Maples has tracked down the jewelers instrumental to the project, while also commissioning new jewelry and collaborating with contemporary artists, photographers, goldsmiths, and fashion designers. Here goldsmith Mountaga Cissoko points out the bracelet he created decades ago, proud to have it published in Good as Gold. Cissoko still operates from the same shop in the Soumbedioune artisanal market in Dakar.
This delicately wrought necklace composed of hundreds of tiny trefoils and rosettes is one of the oldest pieces of jewelry in the entire Johnson collection. Necklaces like this—that break or contain high levels of gold—often fall prey to the goldsmith’s melting pot, whether to be remade in a new style or to pay bills during times of hardship.
This necklace, known as tokoro, is the oldest known jewelry style in Senegal. Characterized by its adaptability and a notable longevity, it begins as a simple, single string of two or more gold beads that can easily be added to as a woman progresses through life. A tokoro is thus a mutually recognizable and ubiquitous vehicle for communicating information about a woman’s history and experiences—experiences that are often shared with other women.
These pendants may represent the peanut or groundnut, the gathering and selling of which is exclusively a female activity. Any income generated from the sale of groundnuts belongs entirely to the woman, as does any jewelry she may commission or receive as gifts of betrothal and marriage or from mutual aid collectives known as tontines. Naming jewelry inspired by the peanut plant would have been a woman’s responsibility, revealing the collaborative nature of creating jewelry.
There is often a gap between what we see and what we feel; between how we appear to others and how we see ourselves. Similarly, gold is more than meets the eye. In this collaborative project, architect-photographer Alun Be and artist-fashion designer Selly Raby Kane teach us to look past the shine of gold’s surface value to get at the personal stories that lie beneath.
The Life of Gold draws from collective memory and urban creativity to shape an imagined future. Kane created both ensembles to articulate how it feels to yourself be as precious and culturally embedded as gold jewelry is in Senegal. Kane and Be take this idea further and imagine gold itself as a lifeform that shapes the city of Dakar, where they live and work. A futuristic creature of gold leans toward a woman in a golden brocade jacket and gold jewelry who looks to this luminescent figure, while crouching within a starkly contrasting cement block background—what can often be the crumbling facades of daily city life. The contrasts echo the contradictions of personal experience, reminding us that dressing up can help us forget life’s difficulties and remember our own potential to be “as good as gold.”
Listen to the artists and the curator talk about The Life of Gold in the below videos.
This boubou is appropriate for special occasions and includes elaborate and especially dense embroidery in a modern zigzag style. For Ba this shows not only style, but a story about history and personal pride: “What I love about style, it shows one’s attitude, which is a feeling you can transfer to people. They look at you, and when they see you wearing something you are proud of, you have something people cannot explain.”
How do you feel when dressed in your very best? What story are you communicating?
The dress in this video was created by Dakar-based fashion designer Nunu. You can find her on Instagram @nunudesign_by_dk. Lena Tillett, a WRAL anchor, is modeling the dress and jewelry. This dress was hand-dyed and created in Senegal in 2020.
In the exhibition Lina Tillet is projected on glass to create the illusion of a hologram. She models six ensembles that you can learn more about in the video and images below.
This modern, funky take on the flowing garment known as a boubou is, for designer Khadija Ba Diallo, a contemporary reimagining of a collective vintage soul. As Ba explains: “I want to re-create the boubou and make it cool . . . My personal style is mixing traditional and modern, like wearing boubous and Converse.” In this ensemble Ba creates a boubou out of contemporary camouflage, leaving the traditional embroidery—drawn from Islamic iconography/fashions—around the neck.
The majority of women in Senegal are Muslim. This monumental bracelet, likely inspired by the Islamic half-moon motif, encompasses granulation, filigree, and twisted wire techniques. The domes, seen on this bracelet and many others in the exhibition, may resemble the tops of mosques.
Beautifully worked, heavy bracelets are highly prized in traditional sañse. Drianké, “women with heavy bracelets,” is a common phrase used to describe prestigious women of beauty and largesse. Accomplished in high style, they dab on perfumed ointments and don grand boubous with matching headscarves, fashionable shoes, and much gold jewelry—paragons of success and sensuality.
In the video below, learn more about the historic city of Saint-Louis, Senegal. Saint-Louis hosts an annual end-of-year parade known as the Fanal to honor, celebrate, and promote the famous local women known as signares, as well as the history of the city itself. The city’s inhabitants reenact the images of the signares, who are remembered for their elegance, wealth, and extravagant gold jewelry, through theatrical performances, costume, dance, and sumptuous—yet historically grounded—sartorial expression.
The iconic Faidherbe Bridge, whose arches have inspired several gold jewelry styles, opens the film. The bridge is named after Louis Léon César Faidherbe, the colonial general who extended France’s control over most of modern Senegal from his base in Saint-Louis. Despite his legacy as an occupier, he is considered a “founder” of modern Senegal by local residents and is also honored and portrayed in the parade.
Film created by Aramis Studio, 2015.
nspired by the distinct fashion sense of historic signares, Beninois-Belgian photographer Fabrice Monteiro created a series of images evoking these legendary characters. He worked with Senegalese women in Dakar, and on site at Gorée Island and Saint-Louis, who reimagined themselves as contemporary signares—highlighting not just their beauty, but their strength, power, and business acumen. As Monteiro states, “it is not a reportage, but a reconstruction . . .” By reconstructing signares from a feminist perspective, Monteiro and the models are able to recover, reconstruct, and reify the power of women in the present.
Note the historic architecture—homes previously owned by signares—and the famous Faidherbe bridge in the images. These elements, in particular the arches of the bridge, have inspired several of the jewelry designs in this exhibition.
Signares were a malleable class of cultural brokers. They glided between the rigid, European-led distinctions that defined race and class in a colonial period that otherwise diminished the agency of local Senegalese men and women. They were famed for their bold display of gold jewelry, distinctive conical headdresses, and voluminous cloth ensembles—styles born of European and African systems of dress. They were often directly involved in the transatlantic slave trade. The Maison des Esclaves on Gorée Island, with its infamous “door of no return,” was owned by one such woman.
Yet, signares are primarily remembered in Senegal as beautiful and discerning role models who made the most of the limited political and cultural options available to them at the time. Today, many successful women identify themselves as contemporary signares, and their specific gestures are evident in portrait poses, as seen especially throughout 20th- and 21st-century photographic practices.
Senegalese women have played a major role in trade as well as politics since the Portuguese established ocean trade networks in the 15th century. Signares (from the Portuguese word senhoras) are perhaps the best known. These upwardly mobile, 18th- and 19th-century Euro-African women who enjoyed economic and cultural power were renowned as much for their beauty and sophistication as for their business savvy. Many entered into temporary marital unions with Europeans who found the alliance and its benefits, particularly the women’s trade connections and language fluency, to be mutually advantageous.
This glittering ensemble—by Senegal’s “Queen of Couture,” fashion designer Oumou Sy—embodies the concept and practice of sañse, and, through color and imagery, combines the historical memory of two famous Senegalese signares—Penda Mbaye and Anne Pépin.
Sy incorporates red—Mbaye’s favorite color—to recall the celebrated wife of Louis Faidherbe, French colonial governor of Saint-Louis. Mbaye is credited with creating Senegal’s national dish, thiéboudienne (boldly flavored fish and rice in tomato sauce). Pépin, known for her residence on Gorée Island off the coast of Dakar and for her relationship with French governor Stanislas de Boufflers, hails from eastern Senegal, site of the majority of Senegal’s gold mines. Pépin is represented by the golden embroidery in the shape of bay leaves.
Among her many international accolades, Sy is one of the first recipients of the Prince Claus Award. Her fashions are sold worldwide and have been featured in significant West African films and music videos.
Women in Timbuktu and other parts of Mali and West Africa have been making imitation gold jewelry for generations. Popularly known as “Timbuktu gold,” the jewelry is made of gold-colored straw applied in elaborate patterns over a three-dimensional beeswax form. The styles on these pieces follow the same classical designs seen throughout West Africa, including Senegal, where the filigreed shapes may originate. Could the similarities indicate the presence of Senegalese jewelers, known for their mobility and their technical sophistication?