Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
July 19, 2004
Doran H. Ross Gold of the Akan from the Glassell Collection Exh. cat. Houston: Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 2002. 296 pp.; 385 color ills.; 10 b/w ills. Cloth $79.00 (0890901155)
High Museum of Art, Atlanta, March 13–September 19, 2004; Louisiana State University Museum of Art, Baton Rouge, March 9–May 31, 2005; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, November 2, 2005–March 26, 2006; National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., May 26–November 26, 2006

This book was written in part to document the collection of gold objects from Africa, Asia, and America donated in 1997 to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, by Alfred C. Glassell, Jr., a collector and philanthropist from Houston. The book also serves as the catalogue for the touring exhibition of the Akan part of the collection. Numbering more than nine hundred objects, it is the largest collection of Akan chiefly regalia in the world. The principal author of the book, Doran Ross, has studied and worked among the Ghanaian Akan for the past thirty years. Widely published on the arts of the Akan, he coauthored The Arts of Ghana (Los Angeles: Museum of Cultural History, University of California, 1977) with Herbert M. Cole. The present book is presented in nine chapters and three appendices. All but one of these were written by Ross; chapter 7 was authored by Frances Marzio.

Ross begins with an introduction to the Akan and their rise in importance in the history of Ghana, which coincided with the development of the gold trade and settled city-states in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Following this, he discusses the development of the chieftaincy and its use of gold objects, the symbolic importance of these objects and the gold of which they were made, and the association of gold objects with religious shrines. Ross also introduces two other important points in this chapter: first, that the Akan are not limited to Ghana (they are also present in neighboring Côte d’Ivoire); and second, Akan arts are characterized by what Ross and Cole identified in 1977 as the “verbal/visual nexus” (9), in which many objects and art assemblages have proverbial corollaries that are widely known and articulated by Akan audiences, making their meaning literary and visual at the same time. The unifying theme of Akan regalia, of the Glassell collection, and of this catalogue, is gold: its importance and ubiquitousness in Akan ceremonies and public life.

Chapter 2, “Seats of Power,” presents the form, symbolism, and importance of stools and chairs in Akan politics and history. The concave-seated stool, certainly the most ancient and universally present seat in Akan contexts and one of the most familiar forms of Akan art, is discussed here; the less well-known Asipim, Hwεdom, and Akonkromfi, all inspired by imported chairs in recent centuries, are also examined. Ross discusses the important symbolic function of stools as loci for ancestral spirits in their “blackened” form, in which the seats are kept in family shrines, covered with soot and sacrificial materials and placed on their sides (thus no longer functional seats for the living). In this form, they are physical manifestations of generations that have gone before. Four-legged chairs, inspired by European or North African forms, are usually decorated with metal tacks (of European manufacture) and repoussé metal plaques of silver or brass, and they are sometimes upholstered with leather or animal fur. These are seats for living rulers of high office, but they can also be used on important public ceremonial occasions as seats for traditional Akan-style stools; on these occasions, the stools literally become seats for seats. While they are impressive, they never carry the important symbolic meaning of the concave-seated stools. Finally, palanquins are a form of portable seat, carried by bearers. These serve during festivals for the transport of important personages along processional routes, raising them above the crowd, thereby indicating their elevated status and rendering them more visible.

Chapter 3, “Verbal Weapons: Swords of Authority,” details the importance and meaning of the swords that are ubiquitous in Akan pageants and their accoutrements. The author pays particular attention to the gold ornaments that are often attached to state swords, which are freighted with proverbial meaning. Here, Ross cites numerous European literary sources since the seventeenth century that describe the Akan and their pageants, including those of Hans de Marees, Thomas Edward Bowdich, Joseph Dupuis, Johann Gottlieb Christaller, Robert Sutherland Rattray, and A. A. Y. Kyerematen. Ross also discusses sheaths, horned and feathered helmets worn by sword bearers, and triple-bladed swords unique to Akan pageants.

In Akan tradition, a chief never speaks for himself in public. In chapter 4, “Speaking with Wisdom: Chiefs’ Counselors and their Staffs,” Ross presents a discussion of the Okyeame, or chief’s spokesman (often translated as “linguist,” not quite an accurate interpretation of the Akan term). These important court officers stand with Akan royals at all public ceremonies and speak for them, while also interpreting the petitions or praises of commoners. On ceremonial occasions, Okyeame always carries a staff, which is frequently topped with a figural, proverbial sculpture. Sheathed in gold, these sculptures are similar to carved umbrella finials (ntuatire), which may predate them and therefore be their source. Staffs with smaller tops, decorated with repoussé designs of flowers and leaves, may have been inspired by European prototypes. This conclusion is reinforced by the fact that some staffs in the possession of the Asantehene, one of the most powerful and important Akan chiefs, are of British manufacture.

In chapter 5, Ross discusses other ceremonial objects that play less clearly defined roles in Akan ceremonial events: among these, the akrafokonmu, so-called soul washers, are worn usually by female children of a chief’s family. They are representative of matrilineage but are sometimes worn by chiefs themselves. These enigmatic emblems of authority, circular repoussé plaques of gold that are sometimes single and sometimes double, relate to ritual bathing of a chief at periodic ceremonies, most importantly the Odwira, associated with the year’s first harvests and the ritual purification of the chief’s person. The radiating patterns that decorate most akrafokonmu, often interpreted as floral, appear to relate to ripples on the surface of water, thus representing the cleansing properties of water. In this chapter, Ross also presents heralds’ headdresses of gold and monkey fur, gun bearers’ belts and their gold-plated accoutrements, ivory horns, gongs, and fly whisks (with gilded handles that are sometimes attached to elephants’ tails). All these can be possessions of an obirempon, or “big man,” often conferred on him by a chief.

Chapter 6, “Clothed in Gold: the Adornment of Chiefs,” is the longest in the book. Here Ross examines the gold objects worn by chiefs on ceremonial occasions. These include sandals decorated with gold and hats or crowns, also embellished with gold (for the Akan, gold-trimmed sandals have much greater significance than gold-decorated hats and crowns). Also discussed are items of jewelry: necklaces, bracelets, armlets, rings, false watches (bracelets cast to look exactly like watches, with numerals and hands), anklets, and gold-covered amulets, all worn in incredible profusion. At times, chiefs carry gold-covered rifles (like the watches, nonfunctioning). For important occasions, chiefs are almost always wrapped in the richly decorated strip-woven cloth called kente, another element of Akan material culture that is well known in the West. Woven of silk, cotton, rayon, or a combination of these fibers, kente was once the exclusive property of chiefs. Nowadays, it still appears in ceremonies as “cloth of gold,” but its use has spread throughout the West African world and the African Diaspora as a symbol of wealth and pride.

In chapter 7, “The Victorian Legacy,” Frances Marzio, Ross’s coauthor, presents a discussion of gold jewelry that was made by Ghanaians but inspired by English Victorian jewelry. Hairpins, rings, necklaces, bracelets, and earrings were sometimes copied line by line from English pattern books and sales catalogues, and at other times they were freely interpreted by Akan metalsmiths. To this day, Akan women of chiefly rank wear wigs that copy multitiered Victorian hairstyles, decorated with pins, ribbons, beads, and combs. The chapter ends with three curious objects: teething rattles of gold, silver, and coral, two of which were produced outside Africa (one English, one American). The third, of Akan manufacture, is the only one from the Glassell collection. It is exhibited in a presentation case of leather and velvet, made by a British jeweler for its sale in England late in the nineteenth century.

Ross presents a discussion of gold objects from the Akan and Akan-related peoples of southeastern Côte d’Ivoire in chapter 8, “Cultural Diversions.” The Anyi, Nzima, Akyé, Abron, Baulé, and the smaller lagoon groups in Côte d’Ivoire trace their origins to Ghana almost without exception (one group, the Eotilé, claims autochtonous origin). All these groups treasure gold like their Ghanaian cousins and display gold on public occasions in much the same way as the Ghanaian Akan. Though Ross does not mention it, the cultures of the southern Anyi, the Nzima, and the Abron are so close to those of the Ghanaian Akan as to be practically identical. (The Anyi of the Sanwi kingdom recruit their paramount chief, whom they call “king,” from Ghana. The current king of Sanwi, Amon Ndoufou IV, was raised in Ghana, served in the Ghanaian army, and speaks English much better than French). The cultures of the Ivorian forest groups, and particularly of the Baulé, the westernmost Akan, are more complex and irregular in their relationship to the Ghanaian Akan. Though somewhat different in style from their Ghanaian counterparts, Ivorian gold objects take the same forms, are very fine, and exist in profusion, along with all the paraphernalia for measuring and weighing the precious material. Citing the research of Susan Vogel, Ross points out (221–23), the historical truth is more complex than the myths of origin indicate, and the historical relationship between the Ghanaian and Ivorian Akan is not yet completely understood.

Chapter 9, “Festivals of Arts,” discusses the festivals at which all this gold appears: harvest celebrations, enstoolments, and jubilee anniversary celebrations. In this chapter, Ross includes Bowdich’s 1817 description and drawing of the harvest celebration in Kumasi, the Asante capital, remarkable for its detailed description of a ceremony and regalia that are still common today. This chapter is followed by three appendices: an inventory of the gold objects and associated royal paraphernalia belonging to the greatest of the Akan rulers, the Asantehene, a brief discussion of Ntan assemblages (many of which include gold-painted objects, the possessions of popular musical troups), and an even briefer discussion of gold objects from Senegal and Kenya that are part of the exhibition.

The catalogue succeeds admirably in its goals: to provide readers with a visual record of the objects in the Glassell collection and to give them an appreciation for the meanings of these objects for those to whom they first belonged. Ross is to be congratulated for a text that is informative and readable. Scholarly references are kept to a discreet minimum but are included for those who want to look further into the history of Akan gold arts. The quality of the hundreds of illustrations is superb, and they are appropriately placed in the narrative. This handsome volume will be a welcome addition to public and private library shelves.           

Robert T. Soppelsa
U.S, Dept, of State/Art in Embassies

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