From glass to brass, West Africa mastered the art of repurposing jewelry way before the whole world started “going Green.” With a rich and complicated past defining its current styles, jewelry continues to play a vital part in how West Africans express themselves, re-defining “statement jewelry” both in their own communities and abroad.
A Beady History
The need for beads has been at the core of African history since the Stone Age. Evidence of simple beads made using primitive tools (like rocks) from materials like shells, bone, seeds and even human teeth, have been found in various parts of Africa dating back 280,000 years. From the time that man looked significantly more primate-ish, beads were worn as symbols of status and protection, and because they looked purty. By the end of the 15th century, beads were used as a form of currency –– Portuguese ships arrived with traders offering glass beads from Venice and Holland in exchange for West African slaves, ivory, and gold. Whether it’s a ceremonial headdress dripping with colorful beads, or a simple, modern, beaded pendant, behind every piece of West African beaded jewelry is a reminder of European exploitation.
Nomads Creating Silver Fads
The Tuareg people are a group of nomads, primarily from the Western region of the Sahara, with jewelry skills that have adorned the world for centuries. Among the Tauregs, jewelers are thought to have special powers because they can manipulate fire and transform a piece of raw metal into a precious, family heirloom. Most Tuareg jewelry is made of silver (although brass, copper, tin and more recently, gold, is also used) with intricate geometric carvings decorating each one-of-a-kind-piece. Historically animists (believe that non-human objects, like mountains and rocks, have souls like humans do), carvings on pendants, bracelets and earrings are often symbols of nature –- or symbols that look like abstract vaginas, since the Tuaregs also believe they spawn from a great, female goddess. Islamic influence from colonization is definitely noticeable in the Moorish, architectural-like designs. Nowadays, Western influence has creeped into the ancient, West African art form, with the introduction of new materials, like semi-precious stones and gems. Oh, and garbage.
Making Cash Out of Trash
Making use of imported Western trash, like plastic and glass bottles, West Africans have found numerous ways to turn junk into jingles. Ghana takes the bead lead by recycling bottles, broken windshields, and any other shattered glass to make Krobo beads. In Burkina Faso, plastic prayer mats that are thrown out after a few, long prayers are recycled and cut up into colorful bracelets. Bronze jewelry turns green these days in Mali –– where abandoned bronze radiators are pounded out and transformed into earrings that radiate beauty from your ears. Excess trash has redefined the materials used for jewelry production in West Africa and although no one is getting rich, at least some are able to (barely) get by on the money made from selling recycled jewelry to tourists and Western stores.
While globalization has introduced more non-biodegradable shit to West Africa than aid, West Africans are making the best of the unfair trade. Utilizing their rich history of adornment for ceremony and social commentary, West Africans are making a bold statement to the entire world that they are on the cutting edge of making something beautiful from nothing.