Nestled within the bustle and vivacious color of the city of Dakar, Senegal, there is, perhaps, an unprepossessing room coated in black dust, with a bare dirt floor. A man stoops over a hole in the floor at the center of the room, stoking the coals that heat the furnace there. It is here in this m’bar—a Senegalese goldsmith’s studio—that he taps his formidable skill and artistry to create some of the most complex and elegant works of gold jewelry in the world.
Wolof artist or client, Senegal, Necklace, mid 20th century, gold and copper, Pendant: H. 4 3/8 x W. 3 3/4 x D. 1 3/16 in.; Chain with florettes: 19 1/2 in.; National Museum of African Art, gift of Dr. Marian Ashby Johnson, 2012-18-4; Photograph: National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution
But behind the man at the forge there is a woman, a signare, commissioning the piece. This necklace (or bracelet, ring, belt, headpiece … ) will be a masterpiece in gold: impossibly delicate threads woven into filigreed organic shapes like flowers, butterflies, vines, or more geometric, almost architectural forms. The finished product will be worn by this signare not merely as an ornament of beauty, but also as an outward display of her status, wealth, and power—none of which are easily come by for women in this time or in this part of the world.
Stanislaus Darondeau, Signare en grand costume (reproduction), in Nicholas Frey’s Côte Occidentale d’Afrique: vues-scenes-croquis (Paris: C. Marpon et E. Flammarion, 1890)
The signares of Senegal were African women of means and formidable social consequence during the 18th and 19th centuries. The word signare—a hybrid of French and Portuguese—reflects the collision of cultures that gave rise to these powerful women. Oftentimes signares entered into temporary marriages with European merchants and, being mixed race themselves, were able to leverage their social status and gain wealth through their marriages, carving out a powerful place in the cutthroat world of trade and politics.
The story is a complicated one. These African women inserted themselves into European trade-politics, a big part of which was the transatlantic slave trade. “It’s this history of the oppressive side of human exploitation, plus empowerment at the same time. It’s a very complex narrative,” Amanda M. Maples, the NCMA’s curator of African art, told Smithsonian magazine. Many signares were not only complicit in the sale of enslaved people but owned slaves themselves. All the while, dripping with gold. So history looks back on the signares and sees two sides: on one, a past steeped in exploitation, racism, and class oppression; and on the other, a success story for women who knew the game and played it well, empowering themselves and their descendants.
And, the gold they were dripping with became not only a way to display their wealth and social prowess but also a means for passing on that wealth to future generations. Gold carried an intrinsic value and could always be melted down and remade into new forms or sold for currency. Maples refers to it as “a mobile savings account.” Even today in Senegal, gold is the preferred traditional gift for women, given to wives by their husbands as a wedding gift, or by family at the birth of a child, or even given among women to one another at celebratory events and parties.
Good as Gold: Fashioning Senegalese Women is the first major exhibition of its kind, focusing on the golden history of Senegal, and the complex beauty of the signare and her style.