The Arts of Africa

Tenabea nyinaa nseåø.
(All dwelling places are not alike.)
—Asante proverb

I learned about art growing up in my hometown, Kumasi, the capital of Asante, an old Akan kingdom at the heart of the new republic of Ghana. There were paintings and drawings on our walls; there were sculptures and pots, in wood and ivory and earthenware and brass; and there were art books in the bookcases. But above all, my mother collected Asante goldweights: small figures or geometrical shapes, cast in brass, usually from wax originals, that had been used for weighing gold dust when it was our currency (as it was well into this century). The figurative goldweights are wonderfully expressive: they depict people and animals, plants and tools, weapons and domestic utensils, often in arrangements that will remind an Asante who looks at them of a familiar proverb. And the abstract geometrical weights, their surfaces decorated with patterns, sometimes use the adinkra symbols, which are found as well on Akan stools and funeral cloths. Each of them has a name—Gye Nyame, for example—and a meaning—in this case, the power of God. There is no established correlation between what one of these miniature brass sculptures looks like and what it weighs: each person knew his or her own collection. In short, the goldweights of West Africa are richly embedded in significances; and a representative sample of them was on display at the Guggenheim Museum last summer in the exhibition “Africa: The Art of a Continent.”

The show had begun at the Royal Academy in London in 1995, as part of a celebration of African cultures, and the catalog, produced for both installations, contains most of the pieces that were shown in both places along with a few that did not travel to New York; the Guggenheim then supplemented the full catalog with one subtitled One Hundred Works of Power and Beauty, which reflected the addition at the Guggenheim of major pieces from American collections.

The Akan goldweights in the main catalog were shown in both places. I knew they would be there from the moment I first heard the show was being planned, because I knew that Tom Phillips, the member of the Royal Academy who curated the show, was an avid collector, and another avid collector—my mother—had corresponded with him. The pieces he chose covered, as I say, the whole range of the genre. There were some of the earliest geometric weights, used from the fifteenth century in the northward trade of gold across the Sahel, their surfaces inscribed with such familiar simple shapes as the inverted swastika and with less familiar designs that put me in mind of Klee; and there were also the better-known human figures, which seem to have been created first in the seventeenth century, as the trade turned to the new European partners on the Guinea coast. Among the figures were: a couple in flagrante (probably from the eighteenth century); a slightly earlier palm wine tapper …

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