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Artist channels 10 generations of Mali jewelers

Mali jewelry artist Ousmane Macina in his Albuquerque studio. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The jewelry gleams as bright as an African crescent moon.

The spirit of more than 10 generations of jewelers to the Mali king flows through Ousmane Macina’s slender fingers as he creates wire filigree and twisted hoops.

The West African native crafts graceful designs of twisted 22-karat gold and silver from his Albuquerque home studio after moving from Santa Fe three years ago. He immigrated to the U.S. from Mali in 1990.

Macina began learning to make jewelry after watching his father melt, twist and hammer pieces in his workshop.

“I started when I was 7,” he said. “When I was 7, I could do whatever I could do and I’d sleep in the shop.”

First, he pumped a pair of goatskin bellows as a fire melted the gold until it was pliable.

He started by making the twisted hoop earrings that are the trademark of his Fulani tribe. The design symbolizes the wealth and prestige of the wearer. Tribal members wear it for formal occasions such as marriage, birth and during Ramadan.

He first came to this country to be with a girlfriend in New York and then moved to Boston to study English. He later moved to Santa Fe because he heard it possessed a thriving arts and crafts market. He’s been showing his work at Santa Fe’s International Folk Art Market for 14 years.

Earring and a bracelet by Ousmane Macina.

New Mexico’s climate reminded him of home.

Mali is a desert country where people live in adobe homes, he said. Everyone has a studio and a garden scattered with chickens and goats. They even grow chile.

He learned to be self-sufficient, even riding a horse 200 miles to dig his own gold from the mines of Timbuktu, carrying his water in a calabash or dried pumpkin.

“Things were OK when I left, but today it’s not good,” Macina said. “It’s al-Qaida and ISIS and all of that happening in the north.”

His own village lies in the safer southern part of Mali, he said. He last visited there eight months ago.

“The village is OK, but the north is still occupied by ISIS. They’re very, very scared,” he said.

Today he’s an American citizen.

He began setting turquoise into his rings “because everybody likes turquoise here.” Still, he imparts his tribal identity by hugging the stone with silver crescents.

A silver filigree cuff bracelet boasts a constellation of wires spiraling into a bow shape.

“Every single wire is individually shaped, bent and fused,” he said. “It’s an ancient technique.”

Works by Mali jewelry artist Ousmane Macina.

To create a piece, he uses his handmade anvil and hammer to twist the metal. A silver pitcher holds a bouquet of hammers, while a row of pliers dangles from a small workbench. He crafted his anvil from a tree stump and what resembles an oversized steel nail. He uses charcoal to fire his work, digging it from a gym bag he lifts from a trunk. It, too, came from Mali.

He’s working on creating wire-formed beads for a necklace. First, he bends each wire to form the shape of a fan. Then he heats and molds it into round beads.

Macina’s hand-fabricated jewelry gives him a ticket to the world. He recently returned from a show in Puerto Rico. He regularly travels to Shanghai, New York, Paris, Boston and San Francisco.

When he first arrived in Boston, he befriended an American jeweler who invited him to use his bench. Accustomed to working on the floor, Macina had never seen a bench before.

“I sat down on the floor, and he was amazed,” he said.

He uses only 18- to 22-karat gold.

Rings by Ousmane Macina.

“We make it ourselves from 24 karat,” Macina said. “We alloy it ourselves. We can create our own color.”

Macina’s work is being showcased in the Albuquerque Museum’s “American Jewelry From New Mexico” exhibition, which runs through Oct. 14.

“He represents at least 10 generations of a heritage that most of us know nothing about,” Museum Director Andrew Connors said. “Here in New Mexico we love the idea of people passing on the traditions. He’s working in an entirely different category than we know.”

The jeweler is making a filigree collar, cuff and earrings woven from pure silver.

“They look incredibly refined,” he said.

“I see him representing the heritage of North Africa and Islam filigree work that was brought to Spain and then to the New World,” Connors continued. “He represents this tradition that was brought to New Mexico.”

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