L’Afrique des Colliers: Marie-José Crespin

7 Jun 2018 - 4 Nov 2018 | Johann Jacobs Museum

Glass beads from Arabia or Murano, stone beads from the Neolithic age, corals, shells, and vertebrae from a snake’s backbone—the materials Marie-José Crespin uses to make her magnificent necklaces are so diverse, so fundamentally different and yet similar. On the one hand, these colliers (necklaces) are pieces of jewelry. Yet they can also be seen as little research projects, each in its own right. They combine products of living and inanimate nature with the sometimes wondrous, sometimes terrible history of trade relations that have shaped the African continent for centuries.

Marie-José Crespin was born in Benin and now lives on the Island of Goree, a central hub of the transatlantic slave trade. She comes from an African-French family of judges and lawyers and recently served as a constitutional judge at the Conseil Constitutionnel, the Supreme Court of Senegal. Crespin has been making colliers since her youth.

The Johann Jacobs Museum will be showing a selection of these unusual pieces in cooperation with Raw Material Company (Dakar).



Africa of Beads

by Roger M. Buergel

Necklaces wildly displayed in Marie José’s house

What should this story begin with? With the beads? With the house? With the island the house stands on? With the history of that island? With the act of linking? For her necklaces, Marie-José Crespin draws on a seemingly inexhaustible range of beads. Her extensive archive, partitioned out into countless chests and cabinets in her home, features beads made out of gold, rose quartz, shells and an infinite variety of glass, but it has also come to include lion’s teeth, slave shackles, bronze good-luck charms, tree seeds, ivory and other objects. Its stone beads date back to the Neolithic period, at least 10,000 years ago. So does this story begin in the dim and distant past? Not at all. A simple chronology isn’t kept to here. The beads, however splendid, serve only as Crespin’s raw material. Only after Crespin changes roles, after the collector and archivist becomes the artist who then selects the beads, sets them into relation with each other and strings this constellation together, does a mute materiality become a speaking whole: a piece of jewelry that is also, at the same time, a piece of contemporary Africa. Crespin’s creative gesture thus encompasses two things: collecting and linking. Both activities are rooted in an enormous wealth of knowledge, gained through a long life with many books and discussions as well as much reflection. Working with beads means learning from beads. Tracing Crespin’s personal history, we can see that her passion for collecting owes much to a pivotal early encounter. The young Marie-José made her own jewelry. An archaeologist, who liked her jewelry, then told her about the fate of Egyptian beads that were traded in the markets along the coast of West Africa, where Crespin grew up (between Benin and Senegal). These beads from the time of the pharaohs were originally intended as funerary goods but were rediscovered by human hands to then start a passage other than the journey to the afterlife: they followed the long trade routes along the Nile and rattle in the luggage of desert caravans crossing the Sahara. And some fell out.



Necklace with gold (Senegal), glass beads from Murano and iron beads from Mali

Systematic collecting isn’t a domestic pastime. Rather, it is an activity that requires going out into the world. Travel is a part of this, whether rummaging in markets or exploring the desert sands of Mauritania or beaches of Gorée, the island where Crespin now lives. However, the actual artistic act, the stringing of the beads, requires a great deal of leisure and space. At the table on the terrace of her home, the artist makes decisions: she considers, experiments with, and dismisses possibilities before coming up with solutions. Aesthetic solutions—and failures— are immediately apparent. Why does the little Nigerian chieftain bead fit with the coral, why the lion’s teeth with the stones? Which things don’t fit, and for what reasons? Conclusive answers to such questions cannot be expected from art. Ultimate justification is something alien to it, or even contrary. Nevertheless, some statements can be made about Crespin’s artistic approach. The source materials, whether organic or inorganic in nature, are given. Some are ancient, others more recent in date and still others are of indeterminate origin. Do differences exist based on the comparative value of materials, such as amber and ebony? Is a lion’s tooth more costly than a slave shackle? Such questions about value aren’t trivial. On the West African coast (and not only there), beads have served as a medium of exchange. Whoever picks up Murano glass beads in Africa can be reasonably certain that they were circulated in human trafficking. Every thick millefiori or chevron bead that might, with a bit of luck, be found on the beaches of Gorée is a sign of those people missing from the African continent.

Chevron beads (from Murano)

Yet the value of each bead doesn’t play an overly central role in Crespin’s calculation. Her full attention is devoted to the value of each necklace as an exhibit. Each component’s individual worth is surrendered to this exhibitionary value. An amazonite is an amazonite and a flamingo feather is a flamingo feather. But in the act of linking, in the act of becoming a necklace, the amazonite and flamingo feather lose a degree of their own identities. They become elements of a whole—not so different from how a single note in music becomes subsumed by a composition. In other words, Crespin composes with beads. She arranges relationships in a way that doesn’t rely on templates. And it is exactly this resistance to templates that fundamentally distinguishes her art from traditional African decorative objects that the Western ethnologically trained eye is schooled to construe as an expression of cultural identity: “The beaded necklace signals that the bride, before her marriage …” or whatever it may be. By contrast, Crespin’s necklaces are singular. No two are alike. The relationship between material and meaning remains in limbo, and the beauty of these pieces lies exactly in this uncertainty: not only beautiful, they also have something recalcitrant, even anti-aesthetic, about them. What person gladly accessorizes with gorilla teeth?


Necklace with Murano beads and brass objects of the Akan

Beads are small. Even large beads are, ultimately, small. And small things tend to scatter. They were only just here, and now they’ve disappeared, nowhere to be found. Until somebody else, maybe centuries later, happens across these same beads in the sand or while rummaging in a market, their discovery feeling like a stroke of luck. The historical process in general, and that of long-ago trade routes in particular, is characterized by these sorts of happy or unhappy coincidences. People have a tendency to fight against such coincidences. We seek to identify structures: patterns that can make our world predictable. However, these systems of order remain precarious, not unlike the thin ribbons that hold these necklaces together. Our attempts to find out about these beads can be read as an attempt to challenge fortuity and rationalize the course of history. Indeed, there is a great deal that can be learned from such study: insights about the camels that crossed the Sahara, about bygone Venetian mercantile power, about Musa’s infinite golden riches, about the art of forgery, about human brutality, but also about the slightly insignificant role that humanity plays in the history of the planet. Crespin’s necklaces know themselves to be equal to the adversities, the serendipities and the haphazardness, to a certain extent, of the historical process. They insist on wrestling a form out of this troubling condition. This form reveals something: the fragility of historical conditions and of the human beings who move within them.