Royal Treasures of the Asante Court
“The sun was reflected, with a glare scarcely more supportable than the heat, from the massive gold ornaments, which glistened in every direction.” —Thomas Bowdich, Mission from Cape Coast Castle to Ashantee, 1819
In 1817, in what is now southern Ghana, the British envoy Thomas Bowdich visited the Asante court at Kumasi, where wide boulevards and public grounds hosted majestic royal processions, state ceremonies, and ritual observance. Bowdich’s account of the capital contains detailed descriptions of court members, sword and umbrella bearers, performers, horses, palanquins, and—most stunningly—the glint of gold touching nearly every object. The royal treasury included the paraphernalia of the Asante court—stools, chairs, swords, ornaments, kente cloth, and instruments—alongside exotic European silver and porcelain. Royal regalia (agyapdie) has changed little since the fifteenth-century foundation of the Akan states, the most influential of which is Asante. Now holding primarily symbolic power, the Kingdom of Asante exists today in parallel with the Ghanaian democracy.
Charged with securing British colonial control in the region, Bowdich was especially captivated by regalia like the dazzling gold canes and pendants that marked rank. The Art Museum has two such Akan works on view. The proverb-inspired finial of a royal counselor’s gold-leafed ˙okyeame poma staff emphasizes his role as a master communicator and remarks on the ruler’s nature. Elaborate finials informed by European walking sticks and Akan umbrella toppers developed in the nineteenth century. The motif of a pointy-eared canine seated beneath a bone-toting bird may declare that possessing another’s property is in bad taste, or it may comment on the mutual understanding between like-minded people. Akrafokɔnmu (“soul washer’s badges”) are emblems of rank worn since the early 1800s by officials who purify or “wash” a chief’s soul during rituals. Inspired in part by gold coins from Muslim North Africa, the Art Museum’s cast gold disk has a raised crocodile (denkyem) motif symbolizing adaptability.
As Mellon Research Assistant working in the Museum’s collection of African art, I am researching and reinterpreting aspects of the Museum’s growing collection, which includes fifty-five works by Akan artists. The African gallery’s display of Akan regalia is one of its most popular, used equally by university students, Museum docents, and visiting K–12 students and teachers. One project is to reorient the didactic materials in this installation to reflect how Akan artists have been inspired to translate concepts and proverbs into visual symbols. By shifting the focus of the labels to the evolution of visual forms, this reorientation will encourage close looking at African objects and inspire Museum visitors to make connections with works in other parts of the collection.
Kristen D. Windmuller-Luna
Ph.D. Student, Department of Art & Archaeology
Andrew W. Mellon Research Assistant