Sharon Kostini & Maoa Eliam
13 October 2020

Liquid Gold: looking at the liquidity of meaning and merit ascribed to gold across time and cultures

Sharon Kostini & Maoa Eliam

13 October 2020 | Minute read

What comes to your mind when the word "Gold" is being mentioned? I believe an image of a lustrous metal of superior quality and worth begins to form in your mind, right? It possesses unique properties such as ductility, conductivity, ability to retain its lustre even after being subjected to great heat amongst other pressures. This beautiful metal has found its way into cultures dating back to the pre-medieval era to the present day and is closely associated with wealth and affluence.

The use of gold for fashion purposes in the African tradition was evident right from the time of the Egyptian Pharaohs up to the Ashanti kings of Ghana. Some ancient drawings depict the Egyptian King Tutankhamun (1361 - 1352) and his queen wearing woven linen with gold embroidery; this is just one of the so many displays of wealth by the Egyptian kings and elites. The ancient Ghanaians knew just how to make use of gold. There was such an abundance of the solid mineral that the King's stool was fashioned out of gold!

In the world of fashion, gold is always a favourite. It spells elegance and class and boosts your confidence. Adding a gold accessory to your outfit is a sure way of directing attention to areas or features you wish to highlight. It is also a tactical way of drawing attention to yourself. That's why I decided to call this photo series ‘Liquid Gold’ because I want to showcase and celebrate ethnic women in classic and prestigious settings that empower them in every element of their lifestyle.

There is no doubt that beauty and appearance holds a very important place across Africa. In all ethnicities in sub-Saharan Africa, there are almost always the same types of jewellery. Dobe; small braided and golden earrings, they are found along the ear lobe but also an ornament of braids. Tengou tchaka; long necklaces made of amber and carnelian stones, mineral stones protection against the evil eye.

As a fashion stylist, this project is very close to home and dear to me. The aim and drive for this shoot was diversity, I wanted to embrace and showcase women of colour in a luxurious light. I wanted to embrace and pay homage to different tribes and cultures from Africa and highlight the unique and beautiful traditional wear and culture.

Arabs and Europeans came to Africa in search of trade, to spread their culture and the teachings of their religions, and to extend their territory and political power. Their experiences were recorded and provide useful, sometimes invaluable, information. Muslim travellers, historians, and geographers in the 10th century described what they found in Bildad al-Sudan, "the land of the blacks," which they reached by trade routes across the Sahara Desert. The Portuguese, whose mission was to divert the gold trade from the Arab monopoly and find a direct route to the source of highly desirable Asian spices, were the first Europeans to travel to Africa.

In West Africa wearing gold, a scarce and valuable material, demonstrates power and prestige, taste and fashion and Inari was the custodian of such values in her creativity with fashion and jewellery. Gold from West Africa was the engine that drove the movement of things, people, and ideas across Africa, Europe, and the Middle East in an interconnected medieval world.

For centuries among the Akan peoples of southern Ghana, kings and their retinues have proclaimed their status in spirited public festivals, where they parade with dazzling gold regalia: necklaces, rings, bracelets, amulets, even gilded muskets and finials for umbrellas (used to shade parading chiefs). The display of regalia today may be as lavish as it has ever been.

The Ashanti Kingdom, as it was formerly known, was so rich with gold that even the animals felt the abundance of the mineral. As far back as the 9th century, dog collars were made of gold - that's how rich they were. Due to their great wealth, it wasn't hard for the nation to become foremost in trans-Saharan trading. Gold became their mainstay, and the kings of the time were involved in international trading. The nation gained wide popularity and advanced rapidly in infrastructure.

For the styling of this shoot, I wanted to shower each model in heavy gold accessories taking inspiration from the Samburu tribe in Kenya. The distinctive features of the Samburu are colourful multi-beaded bracelets, anklets and necklaces worn by both men and women. The more necklaces women wear the more they are considered beautiful - this is a symbol of beauty and reflects the social status and wealth of the wearer.

I was also intrigued by the similarities of certain gold bronze artefacts found in the National Museum Wales. Wales was at the heart of a tradition of gold-working in Atlantic Europe during the Middle Bronze Age. Some of the bronze-gold artefacts show a strong influence of the West African maximalism culture and big, shaped jewels. The middle bronze age gold bracelet was found in a pottery vessel at Burton near the River Alyn, it is made of six twisted gold wires aligned next to each other. The layers on the bracelet reminded me of the Kenyan colourful multi-beaded bracelets. The early bronze age gold lunula necklace also has some similarities with the high neck African tribal collar choker. The African high neck tribal collar is a symbol of pride and royalty.

In the book of Roads and Kingdoms in 1065, Abu Ubayd Al-Bakri, a Spanish traveller travelled to visit the court of Tunku Menin where the Ghanaian reigning ruler of that time lived. The Spanish traveller recalls, “The king adorns himself like a woman (with gold) round his neck and on his forearms, and he puts on a high cap decorated with gold and wrapped in a turban of fine cotton. He sits in the audience or to hear grievances against officials in a domed pavilion around which stand ten horses covered with gold-embroidered materials. Behind the king stand ten pages holding shields and swords decorated with gold, and on his right are the sons of the king wearing splendid garments and their hair plaited with gold.”(Description of a Ghanaian royalty in «The Book of Roads and Kingdoms» by al-Bakri, 1067-8).

It was no surprise the medieval empire of Ghana and royalties adorned themselves in gold from head to toe to communicate their way of life, wealth and culture. Nowadays, Ghanaians adorn themselves in gold jewels and accessories at wedding ceremonies and many other traditional and cultural events. The importance of gold in West African countries is still at large scale but very few historical artefacts are within the countries themselves.

As a result of this ongoing unsettling trend, many ethnic women hide away from a lavish lifestyle even when they can afford it. It’s no surprise that Black women may be more averse to indulging in glamour for fear of drawing unwanted attention or being labelled distasteful and show off. For this photo series, each model is a style in a different item representing cultural influences from the continent. One has a high ponytail wrapped around gold coins and the other is wearing a beaded headpiece. Each jewellery is significant to the Sudanese culture and the Afar women in Ethiopia.

Women wear their jewellery both as a display of their wealth and as adornments of beauty, most notably on special occasions such as their wedding day. As a result of trade, some of the jewellery worn by these women comes from as far away as Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Pakistan and India. Additionally, these highly prized items are sometimes used as commodities for bartering purposes. As for clothing, the models are dressed in neutral shades contrasting the colours and atmosphere of the African jungle and dessert. Classic statement pieces mixed with silk clothing keeping it modern and contemporary and fashion-forward.

Nowadays the closest contact we can have to such wealth is in the museums' collections and highly encrypted vaults all over the world. The national museum of Wales is home to the most famous and remarkable gold communion cup belonging to St Mary’s Church. Within this collection are also a few bronze gold artefacts and jewels from the medieval ages. Such as the medieval gold finger ring, the Middle Bronze Age gold bracelet and many more. These timeless classical pieces are the reason why we decided on creating a fashion series that will explore and highlight the value and beauty of gold.


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