Heroic Africans: Legendary Leaders, Iconic Sculptures

September 21, 2011–January 29, 2012

Pageantry and Ritual: The Akan

When an elder dies, it is as if a whole library had burned down.

—West African proverb

As early as the seventeenth century, Akan artists in centers across present-day southern Ghana and southeastern Côte d’Ivoire, an area once known as the Gold Coast, modeled commemorative images of senior chiefs, priests, queen mothers, and other notables in ordinary clay. Their creations paid tribute to their leaders' roles as vessels for the collective experience, wisdom, and memory of their people. Akan authors of this commemorative genre developed distinctive interpretations of the hollowed terracotta sculptures, ranging from the schematic two-dimensional depictions favored by Kwahu artists to the highly detailed cylindrical works embraced by their Aowin counterparts. These approaches universally emphasize the passage of the head gazing heavenward. The artists' stated ambition was to achieve an incisive degree of accuracy, thus directly relating a work to its subject.

Selected Artworks

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