New Curator at Victoria & Albert Museum Comes From a Jewelry Background

LONDON — In November 2019, Emefa Cole first exhibited her bold, sculptural jewelry in oxidized silver and gold leaf at a contemporary craft fair here, a public debut that has changed her career — and likely will change the careers of others as well.

“When Clare Phillips visited my stand, I had no idea it was that Clare Phillips,” Ms. Cole, 42, recalled recently. Ms. Phillips is a curator of jewelry at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, one of the world’s largest decorative arts museums, where on Aug. 15, Ms. Cole became the first person to hold the newly created role of curator of jewelry for the diaspora, working directly with Ms. Phillips.

At that 2019 fair, Ms. Phillips bought a one-of-a-kind oxidized silver ring with pyrite and gold leaf for her personal collection. Then, “when Clare later emailed that the V&A would like to acquire one of my rings for their permanent collection,” Ms. Cole said, “I remember thinking, ‘How on earth can this be real? I’ve been hiding for all these years and now the V&A wants to buy my work?’”

Ms. Cole also was about to begin an eight-week apprenticeship with Nana Dwumfour, the official goldsmith of the Asantehene, the king of the Ashanti people, who lives just outside Kumasi, Ghana. The apprenticeship was the result of persistent cold-calling of friends and family, and she said it was the first time the current Asantehene had ever given official permission to anyone to work with his personal goldsmith — let alone a woman.

“That and the V&A was all I could think about,” she said. She managed to undertake the apprenticeship in part in February 2020, spending 12-hour days with Mr. Dwumfour before a pandemic lockdown led to her return home to Britain earlier than planned.

Ms. Cole was born in Ghana and moved to London at age 12 with her mother and siblings, and attended state education through secondary school. At 22, she was working for the transportation department of the local council — a community services provider — when she found an advertisement for a 10-week introduction-to-jewelry course in a magazine.

“My first child was 4 years old,” she recalled, “and I had just filled out the paperwork to study forensic psychology. Seeing that advertisement changed everything.”

That course led to Ms. Cole earning a Bachelor of Arts in jewelry design from what is now the London Metropolitan University. Her studies were interrupted by a complicated second pregnancy, and then she was told she needed more training before she could begin the third year of her degree program.

“When the tutors said that, I went and did a 10-week life drawing course and a 10-week sculpture course as well as finishing my higher diploma and being a mum,” she recalled. “It would have been very easy to play victim and say it was because I was Black, but it was because I wasn’t ready. In truth, the extra time doing the B.A. really helped me learn how to approach design in a different way. Without it, my work wouldn’t be what it is now.”

After graduating in 2011, Ms. Cole said she “applied for countless jobs at jewelry companies,” but received no callbacks or interviews. “In the end, I went back to working at the council. I had school fees to pay.”

Not wanting her skills to fade, Ms. Cole started teaching herself to carve designs from wax. “Without the benefit of others to critique me, I became my own competition, constantly seeking to improve,” she said. She hired a small studio space near her home and spent nights being “a hermit jeweler,” she said. “I’d go to work, go home, make dinner, go to the studio until 2 a.m. and repeat.”

In January 2020, Ms. Cole took her pieces to the Victoria & Albert at Ms. Phillips’s request and left without her Vulcan ring, a burnished silver piece whose design, a depression lined with textured gold leaf, was inspired by a volcano’s caldera. “Clare and her colleagues chose that piece immediately,” she said. “I wouldn’t be able to recreate it now. I don’t even know how I made it — I would have been in my usual trance listening to Kendrick Lamar, alone in my studio late at night.”

Now, Ms. Cole has joined her ring at the museum for the two-year curatorship, funded by an endowment by the British jeweler Elizabeth Gage. The position is one of 10 that the museum has created to address its colonial history, particularly across Africa.

“Post pandemic, we had a recovery plan which involved a big curatorial replan to include Africa and the African Diaspora,” said James Robinson, the keeper of the decorative art and sculpture department at the museum, in a phone call. He interviewed Ms. Cole for the new position. “We were also looking at how we could reinvent the curatorial profile. We were still appointing curators along lines that were established in the 19th century, based on connoisseurship. We wanted people coming from a point of view on process and making.

“Emefa has arrived at exactly the right time,” he added. “Her insights and perspectives will really enhance the collection, but it will also enhance Emefa’s own work, which has this inbuilt natural landscape. You feel like you travel into those pieces. They’ve got that sort of monumentality.”

Ms. Cole said she is excited to have an opportunity to add to the museum’s collection the work of makers who have been overlooked. On a poignant note, she recalled that during her job interview she had mentioned the Black American jewelry designer Terry Castro as one of the first she wanted to acquire. He died of a heart attack on July 18.

“I’m gutted,” Ms. Cole said, adding that she hoped to secure some of his work for the museum.

“Castro’s work will be a very, very important acquisition for the museum, but I feel like people should be celebrated when they’re alive. On a human level, I’m just very, very sad.”

While she has her curatorial sights set on a diverse cast of jewelers from around the world, she has also been told to focus on people of African descent — not just African Americans or people from the continent of Africa but the entire diaspora, whether they’re from the Caribbean or Australia.

“I want to work with the team to add another layer of richness to their collection and to make a difference by the time I leave, even if it’s a small difference,” Ms. Cole said. “Just being in this environment will do immense things for my own practice as well. It takes me away from the bench and my complete hermit mode.”

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