UI artist channels life’s adversities into jewelry

MFA student Dufie Sakyiama talked about her life as a metal artist and the challenges she had to overcome that inspired her art today. She walked through her thesis project, “I AM AYA,” and revealed the meanings behind each piece of jewelry.


Kate Heston

Dufie Sakyiama poses for a portrait with her pieces at an art and jewelery gallery, “I AM AYA,” curated and designed by Dufie Sakyiama at the Univeristy of Iowa art building.

Maddie Johnston, Arts Reporter

Dufie Sakyiama, an MFA student in jewelry and metal arts at the University of Iowa, has spent the last three years in Iowa City fusing her art and her life stories.

Sakyiama said her art, which has mainly focused on incorporating handmade fabric into metal jewelry, is her voice. It’s the voice she has used to tell her story of growing up in Ghana and transitioning to the U.S., including the failures, losses, and imperfections she has experienced. It’s a reflection of her soul that she uses to encourage others to find the beauty in their own adversities.

“I don’t tell my stories to get sympathy,” Sakyiama said. “No, I told them to encourage people that this is where I was, and this is where I am now, and being in that position actually helped me gain insight on what is ahead of me.”

After graduating with a degree in metal arts from Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology in Ghana, Sakyiama came to realize that, where she was from, a career in the arts wouldn’t be able to provide her with a livable income.

So, she walked away from it, in pursuit of a new career that would earn her a higher income — aviation. For four years, Sakyiama would work in pursuit of her new dream of becoming a flight attendant.

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“I was just a step close to it, and something came up and everything just collapsed right in front of me,” Sakyiama said. “It was a painful moment because I’ve spent like three to four years of my life chasing a dream that just collapsed within a second. I think the universe had its own way of asking me to come back to my practice.”

And so, Sakyiama began the process of applying to graduate schools in jewelry and metal arts and found a new home at the UI. She packed everything up and made the journey across the pond from Ghana to Iowa City.

The transition wasn’t easy. Just two months after she arrived, Sakyiama lost her uncle and was forced to navigate that grief alone, all while adapting to a new culture and stepping back into the practice she’d spent four years away from. But, like her art, Sakyiama herself is an incarnation of resilience and strength. She poured these struggles into her practice, working to create jewelry that promoted a mindset of perseverance.

“I AM AYA” was Sakyiama’s thesis project. “AYA,” is a traditional adinkra symbol of endurance and resourcefulness in her hometown. All pieces in the collection were completely handmade, with fabrics that are hand-dyed or transferred from designs in Sakyiama’s house into 2D prints which she then incorporates into her metal jewelry.

The pieces on display in the Levitt Gallery of the Art Building West are neatly arranged, spaced out so each composition garners its own recognition. Sakyiama walked gracefully around the room, pointing to necklaces and moving them around, explaining how the movement of each piece represents a flow of energy from the piece’s heart. She explained the symbols on each piece of jewelry and related them back to herself.

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Two major symbols that can be seen while roaming the gallery are spiders and butterflies. Each piece was crafted with intention: little wire webs placed delicately within the folds of the fabrics and metal butterflies perched on soft green chrysalises.

Placed on the mannequin by the furthest window of the gallery, nearly hidden from the rest of the show, is a necklace that looks simple from the front, donning delicate pink fabric and a cocoon wrapped in colorful wire. But on the back of the mannequin, facing away from the gallery space and drenched in the vivid sunlight of the window, is a brilliant pink and purple spider spreading down the back of the mannequin and rising up into a butterfly.

Sakyiama said the piece deserved this special place because it was the complete metaphor for her life and studio practice. The spider and the butterfly come together to symbolize the combining of two worlds; a mixture of everything, like herself, Sakyiama said.

The artist incorporated spiders into her work as a tribute to one of Ghana’s most famous folklore characters, Anansi, which literally translates to “spider” in the Akan language. Stories of Anansi are told to teach moral lessons for children. She compared the extremely slow process of weaving and stitching traditional fabrics to a spider’s process of weaving its web.

“At the end of the day, they are not looking at the work involved and the tiredness and other things, all they’re focusing on is how beauty do stitches come together — to bring out the beauty of it,” Sakyiama said. “So that is how I relate my life. The journey, the steps, the trials, like, everything is stitching up to define who I am, and it’s not defining me in a bad way, it’s actually defining me in a positive way, and in a good way.”

Sakyiama’s collection will be on display at Art Building West until March 27.