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Exploration of Contemporary African Jewels: the story of Tracy and Sarraounia

Words by Koura-Rosy Kane

Ornaments have always been part of African cultures. Around Africa, a multitude of traditions related to jewels are co-existing. The first jewel on this vast continent is estimated to be 40 000 years old. Besides having a technical capacity to create unique pieces, African jewels are gathering a lot of symbolism and social codes. Before the colonial epoch, they were used to communicate specific social status. During slavery, they were a way to survive as they were traded for food and clothing. According to shapes and colours, ornaments can deliver messages only understandable by members of a certain community. Although this traditional approach is still celebrated by contemporary jewels designers today, the modern perceptions of jewels in African societies are no longer systemically tied to social requirements. As many cultural products - conditioned and manipulated by social actors - jewels are vessels able to translate the vision and perceptions of communities at a specific time.

Photo courtesy of Theresia Kyalo

Certainly nowadays, other forms and shapes are given to jewels. However the environment – in which they are made - is still playing an important part as underlined by Tracy, “art in many ways is a reflection of society so it doesn’t come as a surprise when an artist like me makes social commentaries.” Through her different projects, she explored specific aspects of society and its organisation. For instance, in 2018 Vijana Mtaani was an observation of the positive and negative role of location, class and culture have on youth while growing up. Going further in her approach Tracy explains she is “inspired by different facets of the society such as communication systems and the formation of human interaction as a whole.” She is adding the fact that her “artistic practice can be looked at as one that endeavours to translate my experience, the human experience across time and also space.”

Among her experimentations, Tracy has many times used Swahili to name her pieces after the oral tradition. In line with her desire to translate experiences through her art, using the language is her way to highlight it and the heritage that comes with it. “It's interesting to me that I have been able to shine more light on the beauty of the language as well as resonate with those who would like to have a better understanding of tradition and heritage” she explains. In this process of naming her pieces after Swahili names, Tracy is not forgetting the imagery that has a crucial role in how she presents her work. Since we are living in a digital world, in order to communicate a message and inform the audience on specific traditions, visual and aesthetic are non-verbal tools sometimes able to mean more than simple words.

11 stages of awakening, an editorial, Shot by Gathigia Kinyua

Aware of this power, Tracy states “that is why I am so deliberate with the visual presentation of my work. It allows me to communicate my experience effectively with the rest of the world.” Through these two elements – jewels and visual – Tracy is sharing her experiences deeply influenced by the time and epoch she is evolving in. Hence, her approach falters between modern and traditions just like the current Kenyan social context. Attached to traditions, they are still building new realities in line with the emerging social aspirations. Handcrafted – as the tradition requires - Tracy’s pieces are also very actual as they are the result of her imagination. For instance, her 2019 project Body Pieces specifically designed to fit a precise part of one’s body. Far from the traditional Maasai aesthetics, Tracy represents a generation of artists that are juggling between legacy and modernity.

Not only is she exploring jewellery, but she also has illustrations and audio-visual related skills. According to her, art and jewellery are mutually exclusive. It is certain that when it comes to design, having an artistic approach can truly help. Therefore she “weaves through both seamlessly." Tracy adds “it's important to understand that my jewellery design is informed by my line drawing and that is how all this started.” After this fundamental step, she can decide which medium will be the best to express what she has to say. “Sometimes it's jewellery, sometimes textile, other times short films & drawing. It all depends on the manner that I deem most effective to communicate the project that I'm trying to put out” she explains. This capacity to manipulate various mediums is certainly an advantage in her work as an artist and a designer. It allows Tracy to efficiently translate her social commentaries and visions into tangible projects – full of symbolism and meanings in the likeness of Kenyan culture and history.

BODY PIECES as a tool of visual anthropology, Photo courtesy of Theresia Kyalo

Moving to West Africa, we are introducing Adinkras Jewels, a Senegalese based label created by Sarraounia. Born in Gabon, she moved to Dakar where she settled her jewellery brand. As Tracy, Serraounia is exploring jewels by fusing traditions with modernity and art. The essence of her label is a celebration of African ancient cultures. Adinkras symbols first appeared in Ghana from the Bono community. They are referring to specific concepts and aphorisms. Throughout history, they have been used on fabrics, logos or pottery. Today Serraounia revisiting these symbols through jewel design. “It all starts a few years ago. When I was studying Adinkras symbols, I’ve learned a lot about their origins, functions and relationship to Royalty. It gave me the desire to transform these traditions and information into tangible objects – able to surpass this state of static images” Serraounia explains. Since an early age, she is been inspired by accessories and jewels. Launching Adinkras jewels was a way to pursue her passion, but also an opportunity to celebrate this history along with African craftsmanship.

MFRAMADAN means courage, Photo courtesy of Adinkras Jewels

Each jewel created by Serraounia is inspired by Adinkras symbols, introduced by West African communities such as the Ashanti and the Gyaman. These symbols were used to “pass evocative messages or give specifications details about historical moments'' explains the designer. “Through Adinkras Jewels’ artistic approach, I am exploring other ways to share messages - while deeply being connected to this role of communication, transition and information African jewellery had through the centuries'' adds Serraounia. Right after selecting the symbols, she is reshaping them to put her interpretation. During this process of exploration, she is either drawing or using 3D design software. “Then is the time to create a tangible prototype to evaluate properly the measurements and last details. Finally, I send them to the local craft workshop. I am mainly using bronze and silver. Most of my pieces are tested a few weeks before being available to the public '' discloses Serraounia.

Besides this important influence of Adinkras symbols, this young creative is deeply inspired by her homeland: Gabon. “This country has an impressive fauna and flora. Some parts are still untouched by humankind. Forests are so dense it is just breathless. I’m always looking for this type of imagery to go with my jewels” she claims. Through her visual, Serraounia is including a lot of symbols that refer to her former surroundings. Although she grew up far from city life, she is glad and grateful to be part of the Dakar creative scene today. Capital of Senegal, Dakar is a city where creatives from various fields – art, fashion, design, photography, music – are coexisting and collaborating. By teaming up, the creative scene is creating a symbiosis of heteroclite universes and expertise. Senegalese culture has been tied to artistic practices for centuries. It has been expressed through paintings, designs or even textiles. Hence, evolving as a creative in such a context gives a lot of opportunities to make your practice blossoms.

Editorial Mode Senegal for OE Magazine, Shot by Seyni B

Deep are the symbolism hidden behind Adinkras Jewels. As mentioned while exploring Tracy’s work, African civilisations have anchored traditions related to ornaments. “Before and until today, many African communities put a lot of meaning into jewels. It can refer to power, protection or even healthiness” explains at her turn Serraounia. Although these visions are well established, according to her, nowadays jewels are playing different roles for individuals. The Gabonese designer thinks that now it depends on each experience and personality. It is through these elements that one will give the jewel its meaning and function. Because of the depth Adinkras pieces hold, Serraounia believes in their capacity to benefit – spiritually or physically – the wearer. “I truly believe that our words, our thoughts can give specific energy to guide us through life. We can put this energy into tangible objects like Adinkras Jewels.

Contemporary African jewels are deeply marked by their history. They can be used as social commentaries like Tracy’s approach or they can have a more spiritual role as Serraounia through Adinkras Jewels. Either way, they are the nest of cultural and social symbolism able to even protect the wearer. Beyond simple accessories, a deep social and spiritual aspect is given to African jewels. This approach goes along with the African cultures overall. Although we cannot generalise the practices over this vast continent, similarities between the cultures are existing. Approaching cultural products - such as garments, art, music, jewels – through a spiritual lens has been part of these societies since the beginning of time. Though in the Western world, these elements are not necessarily related to higher forces and powers, this dichotomy is far from being universal. The work of Tracy and Serraounia highlights other approaches and functions that have an important role in each of their social and cultural contexts. It is not magic neither it is extraordinary. It is traditions and history that apply to contemporary visions.