By Sheila Wickouski

In adjoining galleries at the National Museum of African Art, two exhibits offer rare experiences in considering different expressions of art that emphasize the strength, beauty and power of women. 

I am…Contemporary Women Artists of Africa (through July 5, 2020)features works of 27 artists from 10 African countries who explore through media as diverse as fabric to metal, the social, political and economic history that impacts this time in their lives. Good As Gold: Fashioning Senegalese Women (through September 29, 2019) focuses on the production, display and circulation of gold in Senegal and the use of it in jewelry to exhibit elegance and prestige. 

Set in the center of I am…, is the eye-stopping Esther. Through painted scenes against gold background, this stunning silk gown encapsulates the struggles in the Niger Delta with diamond extraction and the hazards of war. Patience Torlowei, who has had outstanding success in the fashion world with her own internationally recognized design house, created this dress in honor of her mother. The power of the piece resides in both its beauty and underlying meaning of the power of love.

Looking through the open doorway, one can glimpse highlights of the adjacent Good as Gold exhibit with a glittering work by Senegal’s “Queen of Couture,” Oumou Sy. Evoking the historical memory of Senegal’s signares, the 18th and 19th century Mulatto French-African women noted for both their beauty and economic savvy, this ensemble piece is set amidst a collection of 250 pieces and embodies the tradition and significance of gold in power and status. 

These works were the first two fashion acquisitions of the NMAA collection, and viewing them across the adjoining galleries, with the realization of their varied historical connection to gold mining, reminds us what all this means beyond the exhibit. As a museum experience, it is a truly exhilarating and emotional moment.

There is so much more, however, that invites comparisons in both exhibits. This includes their shared relevancy for the portrayal of women in a variety of formats: from photographs, paintings and textile works, as well as the diversity in material from the elaborate filigree jewelry in Good as Gold, to the films and objects like aluminum cookware, as a global sculpture of the World Under Pressure in I am… 

Each exhibit, and their treasures, is a treat well worth the time to explore—doubly so when viewed together.

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