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For hundreds of years, goldsmiths in Senegal have been crafting some of the world's most intricate jewelry. But outside of Senegal, their artistic tradition has largely gone unnoticed. Now the Smithsonian's National Museum of African Art in Washington, D.C., is showcasing the jewelry. Here's NPR's Nurith Aizenman.
NURITH AIZENMAN, BYLINE: I'm at the exhibit, and I spot Marian Ashby Johnson. She's peering into a glass case containing an enormous necklace, three pendants of elaborately layered gold.
MARIAN ASHBY JOHNSON: I'm still admiring my own pieces of jewelry - bring back so many memories.
AIZENMAN: They begin in 1963, when Johnson joined her husband on a work trip to Senegal's capital, Dakar. Walking the streets, she noticed all these hole-in-the-wall workshops where artisans were crafting gold jewelry unlike anything she'd ever seen. It was made from filigree.
JOHNSON: Thread of gold. That's what it is.
AIZENMAN: A gold wire that's impossibly thin, which they twist and layer into these dense yet astonishingly delicate lace-like forms. The technique dates as far back as the 12th century in Senegal, but Johnson soon realized goldsmiths were melting down many of the older pieces to make modern designs. She decided to buy up as many as she could.
JOHNSON: I realized I should do this now or it wouldn't be done at all.
AIZENMAN: Some items she couldn't afford. She'd watch as exquisite designs were destroyed right in front of her.
JOHNSON: Some of them, I found copies of them later. But in many cases, they were gone. I never found them again.
AIZENMAN: Still, Johnson ultimately managed to amass more than 250 pieces, the best of which have formed the core of this Smithsonian exhibit. Amanda Maples, the curator, says she also wanted to tell the story of the women who've been wearing this jewelry for hundreds of years, including a class of powerful women whose influence still reverberates through Senegalese culture.
AMANDA MAPLES: These women known as signares, which are around in the 18th and 19th century.
AIZENMAN: The signares were mixed-race descendants of European merchants and high-status Senegalese Wolof women. By the 1700s, many of them had emerged as independent businesswomen in their own right. The typical signare might own ships, manage trade networks, employ men.
MAPLES: She can speak several different languages, European and Wolof.
AIZENMAN: Maples says she'd be renowned for her patronage of musicians, her glittering dinner parties and, most of all, her opulent fashions.
MAPLES: They were thought of as these women that had the most voluminous cloth ensembles, really bright, huge gold jewelry. I mean, they had the biggest gold jewelry. And they would parade through town so people could see how much wealth they had and how successful they were.
AIZENMAN: Oumou Sy is a top fashion designer from Senegal. The Smithsonian commissioned her to recreate a signare's outfit.
OUMOU SY: (Speaking French).
AIZENMAN: "A head wrap in a conical sugarloaf shape, a gown of sumptuous fabric with huge, puffed sleeves. And, of course..."
SY: (Speaking French).
AIZENMAN: "...Gold filigree - necklaces, earrings, bangles, toe rings." And yet there's an ugly side to the singares' story. Hudita Nura Mustafa is an anthropologist who's studied the signares' influence in current Senegalese culture.
HUDITA NURA MUSTAFA: This wealth and power and beauty and influence was gained through, perhaps, morally ambiguous methods.
AIZENMAN: Mustafa notes that the signares generally built their wealth through quasi-marriages with European traders, many of whom made their money either directly or indirectly through the transatlantic slave trade. The signares themselves also owned slaves. But Mustafa says today's Senegalese are also mindful that these were African women who found a way to thrive at a time of European encroachment.
MUSTAFA: They are recognized and held up as icons of a negotiation of being able to bridge and balance many worlds.
AIZENMAN: Hilary Jones is a professor at Florida International University who's written a history of mixed-race peoples in Senegal, and she says for modern women in Senegal...
HILARY JONES: You know, what they see are women who were incredibly successful, who created a kind of space for themselves against all odds.
AIZENMAN: Oumou Sy, the fashion designer, says you can see the signares' influence in the way modern Senegalese women use fashion to project dignity and self-assurance. It's an attitude so celebrated in Senegal, it has a name, sanse.
SY: (Speaking French).
AIZENMAN: "Sanse means to dare," says Sy, "to present yourself in your finest without fear." Nurith Aizenman, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.