Portraying Power Globally

    Gun bearer or bodyguard’s cap (krɔbɔnkyɛ), 19th century
    Duiker rawhide, wood, paint, and leather

    These three works demonstrate that rulers around the world combine foreign and local symbols to portray their power. Innovated in the 1600s and still worn today, the signature hide caps (krɔbɔnkyɛ) of royal Akan gun-bearers are decorated with images of the weapons and powder kegs they carry. This example includes the carved muskets and curve-bladed swords with distinctive double-ball hilts (afena) that royal sword-bearers have carried since at least the sixteenth century. Gun-bearers (atuotumfoɔ) joined the ranks of royal Akan attendants soon after the Danish brought the musket to the region in the late seventeenth century, prompting the creation of the krɔbɔnkyɛ cap. While foreign muskets dominate this nineteenth-century cap, it is the older, local symbol of power—the afena—that takes pride of place at the center. Both weapons reinforce Akan might in the face of British colonialism.

    French, 1824–1904
    Napoleon in Egypt, 1867–68
    Oil on wood panel

    Just as Akan rulers incorporated foreign elements into regalia to embellish their display of power, so too did the French. In Gérôme’s painting of Napoléon Bonaparte in Cairo, the general wears a curved Mameluke sword. The distinctive blade took its name from Egypt’s Muslim Mamluk Sultanate (1250–1517), whose rulers rose from slavery to dominate the region; their domed tombs frame the Frenchman here. Bonaparte and his cavalry unofficially adopted the sword as a sign of their Christian might and colonial intentions; here, he wears it with his trademark black bicorne hat, appropriating the exotic weapon to better portray French power. Despite his confidant stance and general’s uniform, Napoléon ultimately failed to add Egypt to the French empire; these symbols of power could not prevent a British naval defeat in 1798.

    Abeokuta, Ogun State, Nigeria
    Coronet (Orikogbofo), 20th century
    Glass beads and cloth

    Royal regalia reflected the complex relationships between African and European rulers during the colonial era. Likely modeled after Queen Victoria’s coronation crown, this gold-beaded coronet (orikogbofo) was used by a Yoruba ruler for secular public appearances. Such a headpiece conveyed its wearer’s style and political position, suggesting this coronet owner’s likely alliance with British colonial powers prior to Nigeria’s independence (1960). While its form drew heavily from British models, its symbolism remained rooted in Yoruba visual and spiritual practice: beaded birds allude to the women without whom a leader could not rule, and the coronet’s upper part was once packed with spiritually and symbolically potent materials, intended to protect its wearer. As in the Akan courts of Ghana, or among the French in Egypt, Yoruba artists created complex works that supported power.