Forests of Gold: Kingdom of the Asante

The Asante are a people rich in history, culture and tradition. They have lived for hundreds of years in the region that is current day Ghana in West Africa. They are part of the Akan cultural group.

The Asante Kingdom emerged at the end of the 17th century when Akan groups united under the leader Osei Tutu in a forest region of West Africa. The area was rich in gold, which the Asante used in trade networks. These stretched to the north of Africa and to European settlements on the West African coast. Gold was central to Asante art and culture, and adorned the rulers of the Asante Kingdom. It was believed to be powerful and mysterious, and was seen as the earthly counterpart to the sun. For this reason, the region became known as the Gold Coast.

Ceremonial sword, before 1897 (Asante or Fante), WA507720
Ceremonial sword, before 1897 (Asante or Fante), WA507720

Art and craftsmanship reflected Asante world views and beliefs. Today the Asante people continue to practise the arts of metalwork, weaving and sculpture. Kingship, ceremony, and the use of gold are still strong elements of Asante culture.

 

Trade

Necklace, before 1874, WA507970
Necklace, before 1874, WA507970

As early as the 13th century, Akan peoples from West Africa were trading gold with Arab peoples across the Sahara Desert, and by 1471 with the Portuguese on the West African coast.

They also traded ivory and kola nuts, in exchange for cloth, brass and guns. Trade created wealth for the Asante and supported an artistic flowering of court art. In the 17th century the trade in gold was overtaken by the trade in enslaved Africans who were transported to Britain’s colonies in the Caribbean and South America.

 

Asante culture incorporated Muslim influences from the Islamic North and foods from the Americas such as maize and cassava – an edible shrub. The Asante bought objects such as pans, cups, kettles and glass beads from European traders, which they reworked to create new objects.

Their ability to adapt and exchange, while  retaining a strong sense of identity, belief in community, and acceptance of foreign peoples, ensures the continuation of the Asante ‘nation’ into the present.

 

The Currency of Gold 

Gold was used as money by the Asante people of West Africa.

To weigh the gold dust, they created large numbers of different weights in brass, cast in a wide variety of sculptural forms. These weights (mmramoo) depict all areas of Asante life from food, animals and tools, to objects that signify the power of the king. The weights can relate to Asante proverbs and sayings.

To make the weights, a wax model would be created which was then covered in clay. The mould would be heated to melt the wax, and molten metal poured into the space left by the wax (lost wax method).

Scales, spoons and weights were used to measure the gold. Traders carried all their equipment together wrapped in antelope, goat or leopard skin.

 

Gold weight: antelope with long horns, R5577/141
Gold weight: antelope with long horns, R5577/141

Asante Belief

Batakari gown, WA507721
Batakari gown, WA507721

Belief was integral to the Asante people of West Africa and is reflected in the objects they created. Amulets were often worn for protection, and much significance and value were attributed to certain materials. Horns and claws sometimes feature, such as in the warrior’s gown (batakari), adorned with amulets or charms.

 

These amulets may contain an inscription from the Qu’ran, calling upon Allah’s powers to serve people who are not Muslim. The Asante employed Muslim craftsmen at the Kumasi court.

asante_05The stool is a significant symbol within Asante culture. It is said that the Golden Stool descended from the skies in the late 17th century to land on the knees of the Asante king, Osei Tutu. The Golden Stool is believed to house the soul of the Asante nation.

 

Creativity and Court

The Asante people have lived for hundreds of years in the region that is current day Ghana in West Africa. History, culture and tradition is central to their life and beliefs. Wealth created through trade provided the resources for creative expression. Courtly arts were centred around Kumasi, the Asante capital, in the heart of the forest region. Asante kings sought high quality art forms to reflect their status. The Asante became masters in sculpting brass and precious metals, woodcarving, and in the making of fine hand-woven cloth (kente).

asante_06
Kente cloth, 2006-7, WA509723

In 2007 a display was presented at Brighton Museum & Art Gallery titled Forests of Gold: Kingdom of the Asante to mark the 50th anniversary of Ghanaian Independence from British colonial rule. These objects were featured in the display.

Today art continues to support the authority of the Asante king, the Asantehene. On state occasions he is adorned with gold jewellery, kente cloth and ceremonial objects. He wears gold bracelets, rings, amulets and beads and his sandals are decorated with gold. The Asantehene’s regalia is owned by the state, and the king is their custodian.

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