Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History



  • Weight: Elephant, 19th–20th century
    Ghana; Akan, Asante
    Brass; L. 3 23/32 in. (9.44 cm)
    The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Purchase, Nelson A. Rockefeller Gift, 1960 (1978.412.407)

    Weight: Bird with Body in Knot, 18th–19th century
    Ghana; Akan
    Brass; H. 1 3/8 in. (3.49 cm)
    Gift of Ernst Anspach, 1994 (1994.312.17)

    Weight: Bird Claw, 19th–20th century
    Ghana; Akan, Asante
    Brass; L. 3 3/16 in. (8.09 cm)
    The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Bequest of Nelson A. Rockefeller, 1979 (1979.206.182)

    For centuries, peoples throughout West Africa, the Sudan, and beyond the Sahara Desert have created precious objects from gold dust obtained in mines controlled by the Akan kingdoms of present-day Ghana. For the Akan peoples, gold not only brought fabulous prosperity through trade but was also considered the earthly counterpart to the sun and the material embodiment of kra, or life force. To better control and regulate the trade in gold, Akan merchants and rulers developed brass weights called abrammuo (sing. mrammuo) that set standard units of measure. While the earliest weights were cast in geometric forms that reflected the gold trade's intimate links to North African Islam, later examples displayed figurative imagery inspired by the great wealth of Akan proverbs.

    Proverbs in Akan society communicate accepted truths and practical advice, and many of those that inspired gold weights are still in use today. For example, the elephant weight refers to the saying wodi esono akyiri a hasuo nnka wo: "one who follows the track of the elephant never gets wet from the dew on the bushes." This suggests that the safest place to find oneself is behind the protective influence of a chief. A bird with a knot for a body is linked to the expression anomaa: yemmo no po: "we do not tie it in a knot." Here, the bird is associated with a wise man, who cannot be fooled or confused—figuratively "tied in knots." The third gold weight is a cast brass bird foot, calling to mind the phrase akoko nan tia ba na enkum ba: "the fowl's foot steps on the chicken but does not kill it." This refers to the responsibilities of individuals such as chiefs or parents who must assert their authority with varying degrees of severity to maintain peace and order. Brass casters created this extraordinarily realistic miniature representation by using an actual bird's leg, rather than a wax model, to create the mold.

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  • Weight: Elephant, 19th–20th century
    Ghana; Akan, Asante
    Brass; L. 3 23/32 in. (9.44 cm)
    The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Purchase, Nelson A. Rockefeller Gift, 1960 (1978.412.407)

    Weight: Bird with Body in Knot, 18th–19th century
    Ghana; Akan
    Brass; H. 1 3/8 in. (3.49 cm)
    Gift of Ernst Anspach, 1994 (1994.312.17)

    Weight: Bird Claw, 19th–20th century
    Ghana; Akan, Asante
    Brass; L. 3 3/16 in. (8.09 cm)
    The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Bequest of Nelson A. Rockefeller, 1979 (1979.206.182)

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