A Collector of Senegalese Jewelry Tells Her Story

The exhibition “Good as Gold: Fashioning Senegalese Women,” showcasing jewelry created by master goldsmiths in Senegal in the early and mid-20th century, opened on Oct. 24 at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art. It will remain on view through Sept. 29, 2019.

The show celebrates the gift to the museum by Utah-based art historian Marian Ashby Johnson of more than 250 pieces of jewelry, along with photographs and other documentation. Johnson and her husband, historian G. Wesley Johnson, lived in Dakar for two years in the early 1960s and repeatedly returned to carry out research in their respective areas. Lightly edited excerpts follow from her recent interview with The Georgetowner.

“We were very excited to go into Senegal because we were living in Paris and that was going to be a whole different thing. We had done some research to get ready for this. I got pregnant in Paris, so I was pregnant. It was 1963. We came up in the Lyautey, a little boat that went from France to Senegal. As we came up to the coast, I could see all the colors and all the handsome young men and beautiful women with all the fabrics. They were rushing everywhere and it was just so exciting I almost jumped out of the boat and swam over to the edge so I could be a part of them. It just really enchanted me in the first place.

“I started looking at the markets, but as I got used to things the most exciting place to me was the ateliers of the goldsmiths — blacksmiths and goldsmiths, because at that time they were doing blacksmithing as well as goldsmithing. And I would go in and visit with them. I was working also at the archives at that time in Dakar. And I found that there was nothing written on the gold jewelry, except for two articles that were written by young artisans themselves.

“Walking into their ateliers was one of the most exciting things I ever went through, because it was a very dark, dusty, smoky place with a little hole in the ground that was their furnace to melt things and get them together. There were young apprentices and  then older gentleman, too, but the main goldsmith was always well-versed in French. It was so delightful to talk to him, because he wanted to talk about his family and his ancestors, because they had been goldsmiths as well. It was so exciting to see what they could do with the jewelry. And I was a little nervous about spending too much time with them, but I found that so many of them were willing and wanting to talk about it. They wanted to talk about their ancestors and they wanted to talk about the techniques and the tools and the styles.

“One of the sad things about this was I could see things that I knew were old and traditional and very often they were melting them down or crushing them to make new things for some clients. It was so frightening to me that I just quickly started buying as many as I could. And I didn’t have very many funds. As I went, each time there was something new that I could find out, for example, the different names of things and how they gave them names.

“The tradition of women known as señares started very early on. As the Europeans came to Senegal, they had no wives that they brought with them. Some of the upper-class women wouldn’t really have that much to do with them, but there were a number of women who did, and they would then get married in a contractual marriage. These women became known as señares. They learned the languages, they learned the ways of French or Portuguese or whatever, they learned all the ways of business. These women became very astute and very politically oriented. It went on for several generations.

“The señares were very careful about their bodies. They had nice outfits that covered themselves and they also built them on an idea of what European dresses were all about and costumes were all about. But they embellished them very much. They had layers of fabrics, beautiful fabrics. These women had the opportunity to get the best of the furniture that came through this trade, the best of the fabrics that came through this trade. And they saw pictures of women in Europe and other places, so they could take parts of that to form their own jewelry and their own outfits. At that point, they became very interested in the jewelry. Some of these very wealthy señares had three floors of house, and on the bottom floor they would have their goldsmiths and their seamstresses and a whole slew of people who worked for them.

“Both ethnic groups, Wolof and Toucouleur, have goldsmiths, but they had a lot of connections. There are certain aspects to the jewelry that is definitely more Toucouleur than it is Wolof. The heaviness and the more solid things is more Toucouleur. The Wolof is more delicate and light, more filigree. There’s kind of a weight to the Toucouleur jewelry. It just looks more dramatic rather than elegant. I’m making very broad statements.

“Jewelry was very much a part of the whole social situation. Every one of the celebrations was always involving jewelry. They would wear these beautiful outfits and they’d borrow them or they would buy them or their people would. And they gave lots of jewelry and fabrics and things at all the celebrations — marriages and baptisms. And their grandmother’s jewelry was important because they used their grandmother’s and their great-grandmother’s and their great-great-grandmother’s jewelry. And they knew something about the goldsmiths that made them.

“I think you can tell the love that I have of the people and the jewelry and how it all comes together, and how this is a really unique style and should be better known. They’re never saying ‘Senegalese art region.’ I hope they are going to have an art region for Senegal. That’s very important to me.  And I think it’s time to have some ‘ta-dum,’ some excitement on gold filigree jewelry from Senegal and these wonderful artisans that have been working so hard over many centuries.”

Marian Ashby Johnson in front of the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art. Photo by Robert Devaney.


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