In Senegal, Female Empowerment, Prestige and Wealth Is Measured in Glittering Gold

In Dakar, Senegal, a woman goes into a dark, small room called an m’bar, a goldsmith studio. The walls are covered with black dust, and she is there to commission an intricate piece of gold jewelry that will be part of her family’s wealth, as well as a symbol of her status, political power and prestige. She’s accompanied by a griot, who will sing songs praising the client’s family connections and her beauty to inspire the teugue, the goldsmith, to create an especially exquisite piece of jewelry.

“Very often there was just one little bulb hanging in that room, and you would wonder how in the world they could do the very fine, delicate work that they did,” explains art historian Marian Ashby Johnson. “There was a small hole in what was sometimes a mostly dirt floor. That was where they had their furnace, where they melted the gold and made it into beautiful things.”

Those things included complicated gold necklaces of flowers or butterflies, with almost impossibly tiny filigreed wires twisted into soaring tubular shapes, or twined into bracelets that seem almost too heavy to wear. There are rings with stylized domes that look as if they belong in a castle, and chokers that look like undulating fish scales supporting a main ornament that looks like it could be a tiny replica of a golden city.

“The presentation of these goldsmiths is incredible, but what they have to go through to get the filigree, like tiny little lines of wires of gold, took a long time,” says Johnson, who went through their catalogues and saw the drawings they had done to make designs to please women who wanted to give their own take on existing designs. “They had to pull it through a plaque that was full of different sized holes. They would start out with a piece of gold and they would have to pull it through until they got to the finest that they could do for the filigree. It was an enormous process.”

source: Smithsonian.com By Allison Keyes

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