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Smithsonian’s ‘Good as Gold’ Exhibit Explores How Senegalese Women Embrace Concept of ‘Sañse’

August 30, 2018

Spectacular gold jewelry from the West African nation of Senegal will be the focus of a brand new exhibition at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art, in Washington, D.C.

“Good as Gold: Fashioning Senegalese Women” will explore the history of Senegal’s gold, from past to present, as well as the beauty and complexity of the way Senegalese women use fashion and ornamentation to present themselves. A key theme of the exhibition is the Senegalese concept of sañse (the Wolof word for dressing up, looking good and feeling good).

What’s more, the exhibit will reveal the ways in which Senegalese women have historically used jewelry as a means of fashioning a cosmopolitan identity of power and prestige.

The collection includes more than 250 works of West African jewelry amassed by art historian Marian Ashby Johnson and then gifted to the Smithsonian in 2012.

A press release noted that Johnson pursued research for several decades in Senegal, engaging a broad number of jewelers, or “teugues,” in interviews and extended observation. The Johnson collection is supplemented with nearly 2,000 field and archival photographs providing a singular opportunity to understand the range and complexity of gold in the West African nation.

“While most of the objects in the exhibition were made by men, the designs, styles and names of such works are by women,” said Amanda Maples, guest curator of the exhibition and lead author of Good as Gold: Fashioning Senegalese Women.

The National Museum of African Art commissioned Oumou Sy — Senegal’s “Queen of Couture” and its most celebrated fashion designer — to supplement the jewelry collection with a new haute couture ensemble inspired by the strength of Senegalese women.

In addition, a catalog will be released to coincide with the opening of the exhibition. It will include new photography of key works in the collection and trace the history of gold in Senegal, documenting the techniques, materials and practices of goldsmiths.

“Good as Gold” will make its debut on October 24 and run through September 29, 2019, in a redesigned first-floor exhibition gallery. Admission is free.

Credit: Image by Fabrice Monteiro b. 1972, Namur, Belgium. Works in Dakar, Senegal Signare #1 2011. Exhibition print. Courtesy Mariane Ibrahim Gallery via Smithsonian.