Golden Regalia: Akan Art

Akan rulers (Omanhene or Asantehene) both announce their wealth and power and protect themselves from evil by wearing elaborate displays of royal regalia (agyapdie) that have changed little since the fifteenth-century foundation of the Akan states, the most influential of which is Asante. 

Golden royal regalia formed an important part of an Akan state’s reputation and wealth. Gold dust was the Akan currency as well as a symbol of life force (kra) and the earthly counterpart to the sun. The metal was worked exclusively by artists in the royal goldsmiths’ guild, where ornaments and brass weights for weighing gold dust were made. A hollow cast-gold sea snail’s shell was believed to protect its royal owner from projectiles (1998-647). 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, this cast gold disk has a raised crocodile (denkyem) motif symbolizing adaptability (y1982-17). Gold bracelets (benfra) beautify while reinforcing rank (y1994-38, 1998-570). Lesser elites wear gold-leafed wooden bracelets, while those of higher status wear hollow cast-gold cuffs, such as the example decorated with abstract swirling motifs (y1994-38). Akan goldsmiths have perfected their craft over centuries, with examples of lavish court jewelry recorded by Europeans since the late fifteenth century. Goldsmiths not only produced jewelry but also advised customers as to whether a piece would be appropriate for their status. An angular motif suggestive of the babadua plant, with its allusions to fertility, was fitting for a queen mother (1998-571).

Other parts of the royal regalia were meant to protect their wearers. The velvet headband (abotire) is the most common Asante crown (1998-573). The ovals and triangles form a cross-shaped symbol (musuyideε) that protects the wearer from curses and bad luck. Two short vertical projections in the back—called “bongo’s horns”—refer to the spiritual powers of the forest antelope. Triangular pendants resembling hawk’s tails (asansatɔo) are another example of protective Akan regalia (1998-572). Influenced in form by gold amulets containing Qur’anic verses that arrived via trans-Saharan trade routes, these Akan pendants no longer have religious significance. Only Akan royalty wore hollow-cast gold beads like the spiny shell-shaped example in the Museum’s collection (1998-647), considered an asuman (charm). When stringing stone, shell, glass, or metal beads together on bracelets or necklaces, repeating a single bead or intentionally mixing several designs protected the wearer and sent a message to viewers through the proverbs associated with each bead’s shape. A spiraling sea snail’s shell was believed to protect its owner from man-made and natural projectiles, like bullets or lightning. When cast in gold, an asuman’s effectiveness was increased by the metal’s natural protective powers.

Still other objects among the regalia are linked to proverbs. A ring’s starburst motif represents a stylized insect cocoon, an allusion to a proverb about the ruler’s unimaginable power (mbetea, 1998-639). Worn in multiples, cast-gold rings simultaneously display wealth, amplify gestures, and reveal the wearer’s character. The proverb-inspired finial of a royal counselor’s staff emphasizes his role as a master communicator and remarks on the ruler’s nature (ȯkyeame poma, 1998-569 a-c). Elaborate finials were informed by European walking sticks and Akan umbrella toppers developed in the nineteenth century. The motif of a dog seated beneath a bone-toting bird may declare that possessing another’s property is in bad taste, or it may comment on the understanding between like-minded people.

Kristen Windmuller-Luna, *16