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A fine Eastern Pende Panya-Gombe African mask. Coll.: David Norden

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african goldAfrican Gold

Akan artist, Ghana 
Sword handle of a hand holding a snake
Gold leaf and wood

Gold Dazzles at the National Museum of African Art

online exhibit :"African Gold"  on view for extended run in Washington

The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
1001 Bissonnet Street
Houston, TX 77005
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By Bruce Greenberg Washington File 26 May 2006

Washington -- "African Gold from the Glassell Collection, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston," which debuts May 26 at the Smithsonian's National Museum of African Art, presents some of the finest examples of gold work from west Africa, formerly called Africa's Gold Coast.

Comprising approximately 100 artifacts ranging from royal wooden staffs of fine gold leaf to personal accessories such as bracelets, necklaces, rings and sandals, the exhibition includes emblems of state power, as well as the adornments of the aristocracy in an age when tribal kings ruled over vast jungle empires in what is now Ghana and Cote d'Ivoire.

The assembled items were produced mostly by anonymous artisans of the Akan/Asante peoples of Ghana and the Baule of Cote d'Ivoire from the 19th to the 20th centuries. However, it does include several signed pieces, including the work of the Ghanaian craftsman Osei Bonsu, who during his 60-year career served as chief carver to three Asante chieftains, and also sculpted pieces for U.S. Presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Gerald Ford.

"The royal dress and adornment on display … reflect some of the most spectacular in all of Africa, and provide excellent examples of the splendor of Akan gold," according to curator Andrea Nicolls.

The Akan and Baule cultures trace their beginnings as far back as 1,000 years, and figure prominently in the establishment of trade routes linking Africa with the Europe during the age of exploration and colonization beginning in the 15th century.  By 1500, the Akans were exporting more than 455 kilograms of gold annually, and in the process contributing to a burgeoning slave trade.

Both the Akan and Baule peoples freely incorporated symbols and images from their European colonizers, and these can be found in a collection of jewelry including faux watch dials and gold fountain pens, all affording their wearers visible displays of personal wealth.

For the Akan rulers, gold-ornamented sandals, not gold crowns, identify the god-given powers of the monarch.  Similarly, gold-covered finials on the tops of staffs carried by courtiers would refer to proverbs and portents of the divine right to rule. Another popular motif used in Akan jewelry, and on exhibit, are miniature golden keys and locks incorporated into necklaces to convey the message that the ruler holds the keys to the state.

Because the Akan and Baule are oral languages, several representational pieces in the exhibition are designed to convey timeless homilies of man’s struggle with fate. A golden sankofa bird with its head turned backward represents the notion that to move forward one must reflect on the past.  A gold leaf and wood staff with sculpted hen and chicks illustrates the Akan saying that a hen's foot may step on a chick, but will not harm it, as a good ruler will walk gently among his subjects, guiding them with wisdom and restraint.

Houston businessman Alfred C. Glassell Jr. collectied African art, particularly objects made with gold, since the 1960s.  In 1997, he donated his 900-piece collection to the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston.

The exhibit of the assembled Glassell collection, opening at Washington's National Museum of African Art, is scheduled to run through November 26.


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