In Ghana, the independent nation formerly known as the Gold Coast, goldhas functioned as currency, regalia, symbol, and medium of diplomacy. Curator Roslyn Walker designed the special exhibition The Power of Gold at the Dallas Museum of Art by using its titular medium as an entry point for exploring the structures and visual culture of the Asante Empire. Spanning three centuries, The Power of Gold: Asante Royal Regalia from Ghana presented over 250 objects in a range of media, including crowns, sword ornaments, ceremonial furniture, textiles, pectoral disks, weapons, a state umbrella, musical instruments, and jewelry that illustrate the breadth and complexity of Asante material culture. Drawing on the DMA's collection of African art, which they began cultivating in 1969, as well as a selection of prominent loans, The Power of Gold was the first American museum exhibition dedicated to Asante regalia in over thirty years and foregrounded the complex integration of material, political, and economic culture in the Asante empire since its early eighteenth century origins.
The catalogue and didactic labels for the exhibition presented gold as both the backbone of an historical investigation of West African economy and a symbolic marker of status, wealth, and cultural power. The exhibition opened with a mural-size reproduction of an early nineteenth century illustration by Thomas Edward Bowdich that presents a spectacular rendering of the “First Day of Yam Custom” (Bowdich 1819). The drawing's festive royal umbrellas with golden finials, uplifted musical instruments, whimsically illustrated masks, and elaborate jewelry display the ornate spectacle of such royal events in the early nineteenth century (Figs. 1–2). The mural-sized reproduction functioned as an astute opening to the exhibition by providing a view of gold's important role in social events and demonstrating the prominence and diversity of ornate gold objects that characterized traditional festivities.
The exhibition also opened with one of its most remarkable objects, recently acquired by the DMA: a cast gold spider produced during the reign of Asantehene Kwakua Dua II (Fig. 3). For a fascinating essay in the catalogue, Walker detailed her extensive research into the provenance of this object (Walker 2018: 49–56). As she shrewdly points out, the opportunities for positive historical identification of African tradition-based artworks are generally rare because of the paucity of detailed written records. However, in this case Walker managed to follow the trail of the object through multiple generations of the Crees, a Texas family, to locate the original collector responsible for transporting the object to America: an Australian-born English “gentleman” named Brandon Kirby who served as assistant inspector in the Gold Coast constabulary in Kumasi in the 1880s. Her research into Lieutenant Kirby illuminates the complex military and diplomatic relations between the Asante Kingdom and the British imperial bureaucracy in a period of complex negotiation and frequent miscommunication.
After rounding a corner past the gallery's entry plaza, visitors encountered the oldest gold objects in the exhibition, which are also the oldest extant gold pieces associated with the Akan people. Salvaged from a sunken British ship called the Whydah, these bell-, disc-, and shell-shaped pendants date to the early seventeenth century and lay untouched beneath the sea until the ship's discovery by explorer Barry Gifford in 1984 (Fig. 4). In addition to the gold, the Whydah carried ivory and enslaved people which were exchanged in the Caribbean for metals, sugar, spices, indigo, and other goods. By highlighting this history, the wall text for these objects demonstrated (as did many objects in the exhibition) the integration of the gold economy within the transatlantic slave trade. Side by side, gold and chattel slavery stimulated the rapidly growing wealth and power of the Asante Empire (McLeod 2018: 21).
A grouping of Islamic-style stone and iron gold weights demonstrated how the Akan people's gold trade and production shaped their relationship with Arab and North African merchants since the 1400s (Fig. 5). Cast from brass, copper, and lead, these objects were engineered to match the standards of the Akan's foreign trading partners, and so their study provides information about early modern economic relationships between West Africa, the Middle East, and Europe. Aesthetically, these objects show the finely detailed geometric patterning that likely came from Arab and Berber influence, by way of Muslim leather-work seen at trading posts.
Gold weights also served a social and moral function within Akan communities. The more figurative gold weights and their symbolism operated as a coded language for instilling traditional values and iconic proverbs amongst the people. Carved in the forms of animals, humans, and symbols in a range of poses, the weights served as storytelling and didactic objects. The exhibition design emphasized this quality with an impressive wall of vinyl illustrations and texts identifying the specific proverbs connected to the weights on view (Fig. 6). As scholar Malcolm McLeod explains, the “extremely rich and sophisticated” verbal culture of preliterate Asante society constructed a vast array of proverbs and aphorisms as a means to “discuss situations without having to refer to them directly, often giving a subtle speaker a protective degree of ambiguity” (McLeod 2018: 26).
The exhibition paid homage not only to historical objects, but to the contemporary legacy of the Asante people, especially those people local to Dallas (Fig. 7). Likewise, the catalogue is proceeded by a laudatory introduction from the current asantehene (monarch), Otumfo Osei Tutu II. To conclude the show, the visitor encountered a wall featuring modern day leaders of the Asante, including a number living in Texas who participated in the development of the exhibition. As such the show emphasized the living legacy of these objects and the resilience of Asante culture since the days of British colonial occupation. As the Asantehene puts it, for the many Asante and other Ghanaians living in the United States “this exhibition offers a unique opportunity to be reminded of the richness of their culture and its historical depth, and to share these artifacts with others who know far less about the ancient Asante Kingdom. I firmly believe that mutual understanding and respect will grow out of such encounters, and that as a result, all those who attend the exhibition will be enriched” (Otumfo Osei Tutu II 2018: 13).
A catalogue is available: Roslyn A. Walker (ed.), with contributions by Martha Ehrlich, Christraud M. Geary, Malcolm McLeod, Doran H. Ross, and Roslyn A. Walker, The Power of Gold: Asante Royal Regalia from Ghana (New Haven, CT: Dallas Museum of Art and Yale University Press, 2018. 134 pp., 160 color + 15 b/w illus. $25.00, hardcover).