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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

The Akan Glitter with Gold!

There’s Gold in Thar Hills! The grassy hills of Ghana, actually. Made from the Akan people in West Africa, The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston is giving you the exhibit West African Gold: Akan Regalia from the Glassell Collection. The Akan are an ethnic group from Africa, who live in Ghana and Cote d’Ivore (Ivory Coast in English). The Akan includes the Ashanti, Fante, and Nzema people.

Although the MFA exhibit has collections of golden items from the 19th and 20th centuries, the Akan’s history dates back at least as far as the 9th century. A European map circa 1375 shows a picture of Mansa Musa, who was king of the empire of Mali. Arabic chronicles around the same time tells how during a pilgrimage to Mecca, Mansa Musa gave away so much gold that the currencies, in the regions he visited, lost value. In 1482 Europeans began establishing trading forts in the Akan coastal areas. Trading became more complicated, and by 1500, hundreds of pounds of gold each year were exported by the Akan.

Gold was fashioned by two methods. One method was to hammer the gold and trim the edges; the goldsmith made a raised surface design called répousse, which is tracing designs on metal and pushing and hammering on the back. The other method is called the “lost wax” casting. The artist creates a wax model and coats it with clay. When the clay dries the artist coats it with coarser clay. The mould is heated, then inverted, and then the wax is drained. Molten metal is then poured into the cavity through a small duct. If necessary, the artist then attaches a crucible filled with small metal pieces to the top of the mould and heats them all together. The artist them turns the mould upside-down when the metal melts, filling the cavity. The metal then cools and the clay is broken and the metal casting is extracted. No two gold pieces are the same, so you always have an original piece.

This exhibit presents many golden ceremonial objects and insignia. There are also pictures of the items being used by the Akan people. Among the golden items are staffs, finials (an ornament that comes to a point), or head attachments that symbolize a moral to follow. One example would be an umbrella finial of a porcupine at the exhibit with the moral, “If you kill a thousand, a thousand will come.” Also there is some very beautiful jewelry on display like the Filigree necklace.

When the Europeans visited the Akan people, they gave them gifts of decoration, thus sparking inspiration for the Akan goldsmiths. One more noted piece of work worth looking is a weight set. This weight set comes with weights, a scale, a blow pan, and a box. The gold weights are fashioned as figurines, all symbolizing thoughts, actions, or ideals of the Akan chief. Many of the items on display are not solid gold, however. Some are made of wood then covered in gold leaf. When the Akan made large works they wanted to use as little gold as possible. Gold leaf was developed to keep the gold around as it was a natural resource. To secure the gold leaf, the Akan used to use golden staples, but glue is now a viable option.

I encourage that anyone and everyone go see this exhibit. The items are very good to look at especially the finials, or ornaments placed on top of staffs, poles, or even buildings, the chief’s sandals, and headdresses. this exhibit opens more thoughts on how African-Americans lived before the time of Colonial American civilization.

West African Gold: Akan Regalia from the Glassell Collection is located in the Loring Gallery in the Museum of Fine Arts Boston. This exhibit will last until March 26. Hurry up, there’s only a week to see it! It’s free for UMB students with ID.