African Gold from the Glassell Collection, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Gold work and royal regalia from Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire.

Details
May 26-Nov. 26:
10 a.m.-5 p.m. Daily
National Museum of Natural History – Smithsonian Institution
10th Street and Constitution Avenue NW
Washington, DC
• Information: 202-633-1000
• Price: Free

Editorial Review
A Ghanaian Golden Age That Still Reigns Supreme

By Lynne Duke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 30, 2006; Page C01

The soul of the sovereign must be protected. His “soul washers” must see to it, must ensure the purity of their king, the Asantehene.

He is the ruler of the Asante, that most illustrious subgroup of the Akan peoples of modern-day Ghana. In public appearances, he is drenched in the gold that, since the 15th century, has made the Akan famous. It gave Africa’s Gold Coast its name.

The Asantehene wears gold sandals. And gold rings, gold armlets, anklets, bracelets and amulets. He tops it off with gold headdresses and crowns. Gold sculptures surround him. Most importantly, he sits on a gold stool believed to hold the spiritual powers of the Asante monarch.

In his royal retinue are the court criers topped with gold headdresses, the counselors bearing gold staffs, the sword bearers grasping their ornately designed gold hilts, the gong players with their gold-leaf instruments and, not least, the washers of the king’s soul.

They wear large gold plates that dangle from their necks. They are called “soul discs” or “soul washers’ badges,” and they herald the wearers’ singular reason for being: to protect and cleanse the king’s soul.

These lavish gold works of kings and their courts, which went on display last week and remain through November at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art, are the portable bricks and mortar of Akan ceremonial culture. More than decoration, these ornaments are signifiers laden with Akan cultural symbolism. Beyond their aesthetic value — and clearly they were made to dazzle — they convey status. They tell of one’s rank in the royal court. And they tell stories based on the proverbial wisdom of the ancestors. They convey the power and entitlement of the monarchy. Wherever the king goes, so goes his gold, including even these “soul discs.”

The discs are sometimes huge, as much as seven inches in diameter, giving them the look almost of breastplates. They are made of cast gold or gold leaf over wood or gold hammered into relief. The discs appear not just around necks, but attached to stools, swords, crowns, sandals. They are among the many talismanic motifs in Akan regalia.

“African Gold From the Glassell Collection, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston” is among the world’s largest collections of African gold. The pieces are dated from the late 19th to the mid-20th century, but they are linked to West African traditions of more than 1,000 years.

Alfred C. Glassell Jr., who made his wealth in the oil and gas industries, collected the objects through art dealers and art auctions of items being sold by Akan royals, says Frances Marzio, curator the Glassell collection. Such sales are common whenever a new leader is installed. He then typically commissions new regalia from the royal goldsmiths. None of the items on show at the Smithsonian was collected through the European pillage of African art and treasures, Marzio said.

The Akan states date to the 15th century. Their rise was fueled by the global demand for gold, both in Africa and abroad.

The Asante kingdom, which dawned at the end of the 17th century, was founded, according to legend, when an Asante priest called a golden stool down from the sky. The stool landed on the knees of one Osei Tutu, thereby selecting him as the first in what would be a line of Asantehene who are celebrated, albeit only ceremonially, to this day.

Of all the adornments of a king or a chief, his sandals are foremost — as important to an Akan king as a crown is to a European one. Just as there are attendants for an Akan king’s soul, so too are there keepers of his sandals, of which there can be many pairs.

It is forbidden for a king to walk barefoot. Some kind of disaster could befall the kingdom if he does. And when a king is dethroned, his sandals are taken from him and he is made to walk away, barefoot, powerless.

On display here in the Glassell collection is a pair of sandals adorned with golden serpents where the straps meet the toe piece. A serpent’s bite is associated with both royal and military power. And the serpents are flanked, on the straps, by rows of gold cocoons.

Cocoons typically are suggestive of an Akan proverb: “It is a puzzle to know how the caterpillar entered its cocoon: Did it build it before entering it or did it build it around itself?” Clearly, the proverb suggests that some things are destined to remain a mystery, writes African art historian Doran H. Ross, who authored “Gold of the Akan From the Glassell Collection.” What is unclear is the proverb’s meaning for a king or chief, he says.

The sankofa bird appears on royal gold gongs, on counselor’s gold staffs. With its head twisted and facing its rear, the bird symbolizes the gathering up of the past to move forward — or, as the simple Akan proverb goes, “Pick it up if it falls behind.”

Today, modern Ghana’s royalty does not govern. But the traditions of its gold-laden pomp have not been allowed to fall behind.

African Gold From the Glassell Collection, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston includes 136 gold objects from the Akan peoples of Ghana, as well as a few from the related Baule people of Ivory Coast. It runs through Nov. 26. The Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African Art, 950 Independence Ave. NW., is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Call 202-357-4600. Admission is free.