Royal Arts of Ghana

Gold Ornaments from the Hartmann Collection

March 02, 2019 By: Dr. David Zemanek

Akan gold production likely began in the second half of the fifteenth century when gold circulated in powdered form (sika futuro) as the currency of the Asante Empire until the kingdom was abolished at the end of the nineteenth century after the seventh Ashanti war.

But the pomp and circumstance of this famous era echoes to this day. The Asante kingdom used objects made out of gold as works of royal representation, as a sign of social status and wealth. But they also had a spiritual meaning. The shiny metal was thought to be the earthly embodiment of the sun, and thus the embodiment of the life force (kra) itself.

The diverse motifs of gold jewellery reflect the rich imagery of the Akan. They always point to persons, animals or objects that are allegorically praiseworthy or meaningful. To this day, a respected public speaker is expected to use a proverb (ebe – mmebusem) that suits the occasion.

In the 91st Tribal Art Auction, we take pleasure in offering the collection of the passionate collector and antiquarian bookseller Roland Hartmann from St. Gallen (1922-2007). With the guidance and help of René David, Hartmann established one of the biggest private collections of Akan gold in Switzerland—he collected masks, ornaments and rings. Hartmann especially liked the representation of the mudfish. His collection is rich in chief rings, mpetea, with mudfish iconography.

"When the mudfish swallows something, it does so for its master, that is, what is good for his subjects is good for the chief."

George Osodi | Ghana Gold
Passing Gold 4, 2009
George Osodi's series is part of a 2009 body of work which chronicles artisanal mining of gold by 'galamsey' youth in Obuasi, Ghana
George Osodi | Ghana Gold
De Money (Obuasi Chief), 2009

An important Akan chief may sometimes wear a cast-gold mpetea ring on each finger. The hand is one of the most expressive parts of the human body and is integral to the rich Akan arts of gesture and dance. Rings, of course, bring even more attention to the hands and help amplify their expressive potential.

The akrafokonmu are among the most beautiful gold works of the Akan and served in earlier times as a badge of the royal messengers. Mostly, however, they were carried by the akrafo who were particularly attractive young men and women born on the same day as the king. By means of their youthful strength and beauty, they should contribute to the ritualistic cleansing and recharging of the life force of the king. The concentric circles are called tadee or ponds, for they remind of the circular waves when an object is thrown into calm water. Researchers believe that there is a connection with the purifying rites of soul washing.

Another gem in the Hartmann collection is a ring representing a frog. The frog is connected with the following proverb:

A frog‘s length is only apparent after death.

The implication is that a chief‘s accomplishments are often not appreciated during his lifetime and that it is only looking back at his career, after his death, that his contributions can be fully understood.

The gold objects (pendants, rings, soul-washer pectorals and staffs) were made exclusively by members of the Royal Goldsmiths Guild. Legend has it that the sikadwinfo goldsmiths learned their skills from Fusu Kwabi, an important ancestor and founder of the Ashanti, who descended from heaven to teach his descendants the art of gold processing.

Akan Pendant with Mask, Ghana
Akan Chief's Ring Mpetea with 'Starbursts', Ghana
Akan Chief's Ring Mpetea with Frog, Ghana
Akan Ornament Pendant in Form of a Ram Head, Ghana

It should be remembered that producing these works of art includes the techniques of hammering, filigree and casting. Indeed the casting process with its complex lost wax casting and wax thread technology occupies a special position. The success of this highly sophisticated technique relies on meticulous attention to countless details, each of which had to be tediously learned through trial and error before it could be handed down.

David Zemanek

Dr. David Zemanek is a German ethnologist, expert of African and Oceanic art and a public sworn auctioneer for non-European art (Auction House Zemanek-Münster, Würzburg). He is author of several articles and publications about African art.

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