Jewelry—as an art form—dates back to 5000 B.C. Photography—as a scientific invention and an art form—is, in comparison, a mere 200 years old. Yet with the invention of the photographic image, the marriage between photography and jewelry has lasted for more than 150 years. With the opening of Multiple Exposures: Jewelry and Photography at the Museum of Arts and Design (MAD) this week, it is clear that this is a marriage that continues to deepen, reinvent itself, and grow even stronger with time.

When we talk about the incorporation of photography into jewelry, we’re not taking about your grandmother’s photo tucked into an antique locket. That, in the context of the innovative Multiple Exposures exhibition, would be considered amateur. Instead, MAD Jewelry Curator Ursula Ilse-Neuman has organized a collection that illustrates the “wide range of cutting-edge approaches in both digital-image technology and innovative jewelry making.” The exhibition demonstrates that the pairing between the two art forms produces objects that are ambitious in their meaning and go way beyond the aesthetic. It’s not simply a brooch with a photo in it. It is more likely a brooch with an incredible narrative and history behind it.

Since the late 1830s, photographs have been integrated into jewelry as tokens of memory, devotion, or mourning. Contemporary photo-based jewelry artists extend these traditional functions and forms while enlisting new technologies and techniques to engage a great variety of personal and social concerns. . . Through diverse combinations of these two creative practices, contemporary jewelers are expanding jewelry’s role as a carrier of cultural meaning as well as an agent of intervention on the human body. (MAD, Exhibition Statement)

The exhibition itself is breaking ground in its framing of jewelry as an art form and its connection with the image. While both art forms have existed for hundreds of years, Multiple Exposures is the first museum exhibition “to explore how contemporary jewelry artists transform and add new meaning to the pervasive images of this digital age.” Collectively, the artists—more than 80 of them, from over 20 countries—examine “social, political, and cultural issues; probe perceptions of memory and desire; and question the broader relation of jewelry to society and personal identity.”

imagesThis idea of how jewelry informs and reflects personal identity is beautifully executed in Bettina Speckner’s work. The artist, considered a leading practioner in the field of contemporary photo jewelry, has several pieces in the exhibition. She hails from Germany. She often incorporates both her own photographs as well as historic ones into her pieces. In the brooch pictured (Untitled, 2007. Materials: tintype, silver, jasper), she uses a shard of jasper to obscure any distinguishing details that could identify the subject in the photograph—a tintype from the 1860s. What the jasper hides is the half of the woman’s face that had been disfigured. Ironically, it is Speckner’s artistic obscuring and hiding of the woman’s disfigurement that transforms her into a beauty. The fusion of the image and the precious stone renders the woman “. . . a timeless, anonymous symbol of a bygone era. The power of jewelry to communicate on an intimate scale transports this history-laden portrait into a 21st century image of existential ambiguity.” (MAD description of Untitled)

10268571_10152445663379559_1004491859831849523_n-2While Speckner engages the deeply personal, other artists, like sculptor Janet Goldner, who has written poignantly for Women’s Voices about West Africa’s influence on her work, seek out the global and the intersection of art and social activism. Goldner has spent over 35 years engaged with Africa. In her stunning mixed-media necklace sculpture Wealth in Africa, one of the larger pieces in the show,  she incorporates photographs, video, and sound to honor the women potters of Kalabougou, Mali, who she believes are the “upholders of a long tradition of skill, resilience and humanity.”  The work is provocative; so too is the title, Wealth of Africa. It is meant “to counter the relentless attention to poverty in Africa and to refocus attention on the richness, beauty and genius found there.” (MAD description of Wealth of Africa).

Multiple Exposures: Jewelry and Photography is on view at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York City through through September, 2014.

“Wealth in Africa,” courtesy of the artist, Janet Goldner.

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