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
african art collections: http://www.mfah.org/
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
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
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.