Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

Gold in Asante Courtly Arts

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Gold was an integral component of Asante art and belief. Considered an earthly counterpart to the sun, it was the physical manifestation of life's vital force, or "soul" (kra), and was incorporated into the ruler's regalia to represent his purity and vigor. At the political level, gold indicated the kingdom's dominance over rivals. Much gold entered the Asante court via tribute or war, and was worked there by artisans from conquered territories who introduced regional sculptural forms that were adopted for official use at the kingdom's capital in Kumasi. The court's sovereign power was further displayed through its regulation of the regional gold trade.


The king's Golden Stool, which was, and remains, the primary symbol of the Asante nation, illustrates this precious metal's cultural resonance. Court histories state that in 1701, as Osei Tutu was sitting beneath a tree, the Golden Stool descended from the sky and came to rest in his lap, a divine gesture in support of his rule. A wooden form covered in gold sheets and hung with bells (to warn the ruler of impending danger), this artifact is no functional seat but rather a metaphor for the power of the Akan state. At court ceremonies, the stool is displayed on its own European-style chair set on a mat of elephant hide. As an icon of the Asante kingdom, it functions like a national flag, embodying the political and cultural soul of the nation. Other stools, also made of wood but decorated with intricate carving and metal inlay, were the prerogative of loyal and esteemed chiefs (1986.478.2). Upon their deaths, these stools were blackened with smoke and ritual offerings and placed on an altar, where they served as conduits for communication with a deceased leader's spirit.


Numerous art forms displayed at court were made of gold. Cast gold disks called akrafokonmu ("soul washer's disk") (L.1982.92) were protective emblems worn by important members of the court, including royal attendants known as akrafo, or "soul washers." Individuals selected for this title were beautiful men and women born on the same day of the week as the king. They ritually purified and replenished the king's, and thus the nation's, vital powers. Another insignia of courtly power were afena, curved swords with distinctive gold-covered hilts and pommels worn by high-ranking individuals. An Akan sculpture of a seated chief from the Museum's collection illustrates this emblem of power (1980.429). Cast gold ornaments exhibiting imagery of political and martial supremacy dangled from sword hilts and scabbards enhanced the prestige of those who wore them. Finally, court linguists who acted as the king's advisers and spokesmen carried gold-covered wooden staffs of office called kyeame poma. As early as the nineteenth century, these staffs displayed elaborately carved finials portraying political symbols and motifs from Akan proverbial lore (1986.475a-c).


The trade in gold also provided opportunities for artistic expression. Antedating the establishment of the Asante kingdom by about two centuries, the gold trade relied on a standardized weight system derived from North African, Dutch, and Portuguese precedents. To measure the gold dust, Akan merchants used diminutive brass weights called abramo. The form these weights took changed over time: the earliest weights were geometric, reflecting the influence of North African Islam, but by the seventeenth century naturalistic representations of court regalia were more prevalent (1994.312.7; 1994.312.8; 1994.312.10). This shift may reflect the Asante kingdom's growing regulatory role in the gold trade. References to Akan proverbs in the form of complex images of animals and people appeared somewhat later, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.


Asante chiefs and notables stored gold dust and other valuable items in elaborately decorated containers called kuduo. Cast from brass, kuduo were based on prototypes imported from North Africa during the region's early involvement in the trans-Saharan trade. The eighteenth-century example shown here (1981.431.14), from the Museum's collection, exhibits especially fine incised geometric patterns that typically adorn these vessels. Figurative sculptural compositions portraying ceremonial or proverbial scenes of people and animals often adorn the lids of these vessels (1978.412.384a,b).

Alexander Ives Bortolot
Department of Art History and Archaeology, Columbia University