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HOME : African & Tribal Art : Archive : Akan Gold Sculpture of a Head
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Akan Gold Sculpture of a Head - X.0190 (LSO)
Origin: Ivory Coast/Ghana
Circa: 18 th Century AD to 19 th Century AD
Dimensions: 4.125" (10.5cm) high
Collection: African
Medium: Gold, Beads, Shell


Location: UAE
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Description
This beautiful gold head was made by the Akan peoples of what was once appositely named the Gold Coast – now Ghana. 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 who varies according to the group in question (Onyame – the Supreme One – is the Asante deity), and a host of lesser gods (Abosom) who receive their power from the principal god, and are mostly 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 Akan consider gold to be the embodiment of sunlight and a physical manifestation of life’s vital force, or “kra”. The economy is based upon the trade in gold, which is most prominently used for the manufacture of regalia for the royal courts. For example, “Akrafokonmu” (lit. “soul washer’s disk”) pendants are worn by a series of beautiful young people whose energy replenishes that of the king. Small secular pieces are also known, but have little social value beyond asserting the wealth of the wearer. The most important pieces are those that send social signals, and that mark out the wearer as something out of the ordinary. Gold pieces have been used as sword mounts, sceptre heads, diadems and the heads of translation staffs, among much else. It is likely that the current piece was also once used as an adornment for a piece of courtly regalia.

The piece was made using the cire perdue (lost wax) process, in which a wax model of the piece is made then moulded in clay to provide a final receptacle for the molten metal. The face bears impressions indicating that textiles or reeds/ rushes were pressed into the wax original to provide textural variety. The face is reminiscent of Asie Usu (bush spirit) and blolo bla/bian (spirit spouse) figures, which characterise the artistic repertoire of the Baule – one of the seven tribes within the Akan polity. However, the piece is highly unusual.

It is the face of a very well- nourished young (?) male, looking upwards as if designed to be viewed from above. He has exaggeratedly rotund cheeks, pursed lips and a round frontal. The nose is as broad as the mouth, and protrudes only as far as the cheeks. The eyes are oval and heavy-lidded with carefully incised, dashed eyelashes on the lower eyelids. The eyes are surmounted by thin, arched eyebrows and a coiffure comprising five thick anteroposteriorly-oriented ridges running from the apex of the high forehead to the base of the neck. The middle three crests feature a row (two in case of the central crest) of spiralling coils that is one of the hallmarks of Akan gold works. These coils may represent beads that were woven into the hair of the individual who this sculpture commemorates. The relief is very high and the quality of the casting is superb. The whole head sits on a low pedestal neck, and wears a necklace of dark beads that probably considerably postdate the head’s manufacture.

The significance of the piece is hard to assess without further contextual information. However, certain points may be raised. Firstly, it was clearly an object whose manufacture demanded a considerable investment of time, skill and effort, and this – combined with the expensive nature of the raw material – would make it very much an elite object. The form of the base makes it likely to have been a finial of some sort; comparable Akan pieces are often attached to linguist staffs, fly-whisks, umbrella handles and swords/ daggers. The large size of the piece and the fact it is made from solid gold rather than the cheaper – and more common – gilded wood versions makes the smaller alternatives unlikely, and it is more probable that the piece was made for the pommel of a large, ceremonial sword for a major leader of the time.

The fact it is in the shape of a head – and a highly unusual one at that – opens various fields of possibility. It could represent the king himself; obesity was a mark of prosperity and wealth, and it is possible that he wanted himself to be thus portrayed. Alternatively, it might have represented the head of an enemy; the victory of Asantehene Osei Kwadwo over Worosa of Banda in 1765 was commemorated by making a sword pommel in the shape of Worosa’s head, and while the Asante are different from the Baule, they are both included under the Akan sphere of influence. Making trophies of the real or symbolic heads of one’s enemies may thus may have been a widespread tradition. Finally, it may have served a commemorative function, in order not to forget the deceased. While ceramic commemorative heads are known, gold ones have not been reported, although they would presumably have operated in the same way.

This rare and beautifully-executed gold masterwork would be the star of any serious collection of African art. - (X.0190 (LSO))

 

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