Goldsmiths at Work

Good as Gold: Fashioning Senegalese Women is the first major exhibition to focus on the history of Senegal’s gold, from past to present, and the beauty and complexity of the ways Senegalese women use ornament and fashion to present themselves. A key theme of the exhibition is the Senegalese concept of sañse (a Wolof word for dressing up or looking and feeling good). Good as Gold explores how a woman might use a piece of gold jewelry to build a carefully tailored, elegant fashion ensemble.
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The video shows contemporary goldsmith Modou Fall Tall at work in his Dakar atelier, creating the biconical pendant seen in Good as Gold. The biconical design has been popular for hundreds of years and is still highly sought after today. The goldsmith’s mastery of the techniques required to create this necklace include granulation, soldering, and gold plating.

Goldsmith Modou Fall Tall at work in his Dakar atelier

The gold plating process deposits a thin layer of gold onto the surface of another metal, often a silver alloy, either solely by chemical means or by adding electric current. Senegalese goldsmiths have perfected the art of achieving a variety of gold colors—from warm yellow to brassy orange—to suit the tastes of their discerning clients. Gold plating may be used to create more affordable versions of jewelry.

In the granulation technique, practiced by Senegalese smiths since at least the 12th century, a thin metal sheet is adorned with tiny spheres or granules of metal, producing a sumptuous, glittering effect. The granules are made from minute fragments of gold or silver wire, which when heated, form into perfect beads. The granules are then joined to the surface of the piece.

Other goldsmithing techniques include:

  • Filigree, the process of layering delicate wires to produce dense motifs that appear light and lacy. Filigree existed in Senegal long before contact with Europe. 
  • Hammering, used by the goldsmith and his apprentices to texture surfaces or flatten jewelry backings and drawn wire for filigree.
  • Wire drawing, a technique that steadily decreases the diameter and increases the length of metal as it is pulled, or “drawn,” through a series of plates or dies. 
Good as Gold is open through January 3, 2021.

The exhibition is on view through January 3, 2021. Tickets are available here.

You can explore more about Good as Gold, plus seven other special exhibitions, through the new NCMA Virtual Exhibitions Subscription. These virtual portals are available for you to experience on your own time and at your own speed, for a one-time access fee.

Amanda M. Maples
Amanda M. Maples is curator of global African arts at the NCMA.

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