This outstanding brass/bronze head was made by the Asante/Ashanti peoples, a subgroup of the Akan on what was once named the Gold Coast – now Ghana. It is a remarkable object, in terms of conceptualisation, construction and preservation. It is a model of a male head, down to the mid neck where there is a flared base which acts as a stand.The neck is elongated, supporting a high, domed head with a pointed chin and a flange-like beard. The facial topography is reduced to a minimum, and most features are emphasised through the addition of superstructures including arched eyebrows, square keloid scars at the temples and forehead, rounded ears, a sharp, triangular nose and slightly parted lips. The coiffure is likewise applied as a series of eminences that encircle the frontal perimeter of the head. The eyes are applied as almond-shaped eminences surrounded by thin, discrete rims. The casting is superb, with small flaws indicading the thinness of the metal and thus the refinement of the casting process. The metal has acquired an irregular dark patina with age, with recessed patches (notably around the eyes) displaying a lighter tone that may reflect the application of libations.
The Akan are a loose assemblage of tribes – including the Akuapem, the Akyem, the Ashanti, the Baoulé, the Anyi, the Brong, the Fante and the Nzema – that share general cultural trends while maintaining separate tribal identities. Their society is highly ritualised, with numerous gods under a main deity (Onyame – the Supreme One – is the Asante deity) and a host of lesser gods (Abosom) connected with the natural world (earth, ocean, rivers, animals etc). The society is ruled by Asantahenes, and a host of minor chiefs who claim royal status through their connection with the land and the founders of villages upon it. One factor that unites the Akan is the fact that they took a golden stool as their emblem and rose up against the European invaders in the 18th century. They have also staved off interest from Northern Islamic groups. The main reason for this imperial interest was the long history of gold mining and gold working in the area, which has been taking place for at least 600 years.
The Ashanti make regalia and artworks in all the notable material forms. In terms of wood, they are particularly known for their akuab’ba dolls, ornate stools and everyday objects such as combs. In terms of metalware, they are especially good at the creation of artefacts in gold and brass/bronze. Signifiance varies; while gold artefacts are invariably designed for courtly regalia – and to show off one’s material wealth among elites – brass has less overall intrinsic value and thus usefulness as a signalling device. The main objects to be made in this metal include gold weights, vessels (kuduo and forowa) and everyday objects of adornment. The fact that brass is used to manufacture portrait heads in other parts of West Africa – notably among the Yoruba/Benin – makes it likely that this is the case for the current piece.
The make-up of the face is interesting because it differs exceedingly from Yoruba patterns – that are essentially integrated in terms of their facial features, which form part of the original casting – and instead has a plain, almost flat face adorned with features that are subsequently attached to the surface. This pattern, which is somewhat reminiscent of akua’ba dolls, has been observed in a subset of the Asante polity, that of the Kwahu group. While technically part of the Ashanti, this subset is noted for its unusual formatting of the human face and figure.
The identity of the person portrayed is necessarily obscure. However, the expense involved in making such a piece is notable, and it is thus likely to represent a person – real or fictional – of considerable import to the society which produced it. This is an exceptional piece of African art.