West African Gold: Out of the Ordinary

The inventive goldwork and royal regalia of Ghana's Akan people —on display in a new exhibition— are drawn, strikingly, from daily life

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This demand for new pieces is one reason Akan goldsmithing has always had an innovative flair. Cannons and powder kegs became popular motifs following the Europeans’ arrival. With European influence growing in the late 19th century, the lion—uncommon in Ghana—became popular in Akan art. (It was not, however, an African lion, but a stylized, Rule-Britannia sort of beast.) “The Dutch, the Danish and the British all had lions on their royal arms and on their ships,” says Ross. By the turn of the century, Akan finery also included meticulous copies in gold of extravagant Victorian brooches and necklaces. Today, chiefs and other dignitaries often sport gold bracelets intricately fashioned to look like high-end wristwatches.

The more than 900 objects at the Houston Museum were acquired over the years by oil-and-gas entrepreneur Alfred C. Glassell, who donated the collection in 2001. “A community will sell off some of its regalia thuat is old or damaged and will make new pieces,” says Houston curator Frances Marzio, who organized the current exhibition. “There’s no stigma attached to doing that, because most of these are not sacred objects.”

Though they remain locally influential, Akan chiefs these days have more social prestige than real political power. “The chiefs I know are bankers and lawyers with college degrees, and their English is excellent,” says Ross. And if a chief wearing a gold facsimile wristwatch wants to know the time, he’ll likely glance at a conventional watch on the opposite wrist.


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