Repousse sheet gold
Overall: 6 3/4 × 7 in. (17.1 × 17.8 cm)
Gift of Alfred C. Glassell, Jr.
Habits of Mind
- SYNTHESIZE Analyze and synthesize relationships and information / compare and contrast / understand the micro and macro implications
Proverbs and Power
Discussion through works of art encourage how to approach ambiguous and complex ideas, thoughts, and feelings. The MFAH offers a democratic space where students and teachers can develop, practice and articulate these habits of mind. Remember that the quality of the conversation is what is important, not finding the artist’s “answer.” Slow down and take the time to make careful observations. Talk about what you notice, and try to avoid jumping to conclusions and interpretations. Be sure to give enough time for silent looking and thinking.
- Explore the power of symbolism in political art across the globe
- Experiment with creating metal artwork out of foil and thin sheets
- Connect artmaking to language skills by practicing proverbs and metaphors
Connecting to the Work of Art
Akan metal workers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries were skilled in crafting brass, silver, copper, and gold objects, as well as iron weapons and tools. The creator of this crown was probably a male, and would have been revered for his command of gold’s magical or protective powers. In addition to his role as a metalsmith, he would also have served as his community’s herbalist and soothsayer.
Akan royal adornments are among the most symbolic and descriptive in all of Africa. This crown is adorned with an elephant and a duiker (pronounced, “dI-ker”), a small antelope that is much admired by the Akan for its wisdom and cleverness. The depiction of these two creatures together represents the well-known Akan proverb, “The elephant is big for nothing, it is the duiker that rules the forest.” Another important symbol on the crown is the fern, or aya, that suggests another Akan maxim, “The chief does not fear insults,” based on the similarity in the Akan language between the word for “insult” and the word for “fern”.
With the elephant and duiker superimposed on a regal cross, and fern fronds projecting upward around the band, this crown, inspired by the traditional crowns of Europe, is a stylistically rare and unusual adornment for an Akan chief. Unlike the Europeans, the Akan do not consider a crown (ekye) to be the defining symbol of a monarchy. The majority of Akan states consider gold-ornamented sandals (mpaboa) to be a better indication of royal power.
This crown was created from a combination of stamped, incised, and repoussé (hammered and pressed) gold sheets using a variety of techniques, including engraving or incising, stippling, punching, and embossing. Other metal-working techniques sometimes used would include cutting small holes of various patterns into the gold, as well as soldering filigree threads or twisted wires onto the surface to provide a relief pattern.
Today, the term “Akan“is used to describe many related groups of peoples in central and southern Ghana that, in 1957, became the first country in Africa to gain independence from European rule. Located along some 300 miles of the west coast of Africa, this gold-rich country was previously called the “Gold Coast,” a name coined by European traders and settlers who first discovered the region in 1471. The Akan region encompasses a number of cultures that speak the language of Twi, including the Ashanti, Fanti, Anyi, and Baule.
Most Akan gold objects are created for heads of state, such as members of the royal court and tribal chiefs. Although the Akan people value gold for its beauty, the longstanding belief that gold possesses magical and protective powers has played a significant role in the abundance of gold regalia worn by Akan chieftains.
- Look closely at the decoration of this crown. How do the different elements—the elephant, duiker, cross, and ferns—interact? How has the artist composed this object?
- What techniques does the artist use to create a sense of contrast and rhythm between each golden element?
- What adjectives would you use to describe this crown? Could those adjectives also describe the wearer?
- Look at the elephant and duiker. How would you describe each? How does the artist set up a sense of contrast between the two?
- Consider the proverb, “the elephant is big for nothing, it is the duiker that rules the forest”. How has the artist communicated this proverb in this crown?
- Describe the composition of the crown. The artist made deliberate choices in arranging the fronds, animals, cross, and headband. How did he create a sense of balance and order?
- Why do you suppose the artist chose gold as the material for this crown? Consider the way it would look on a chief’s head; also consider the region the crown was made in.
- Consider the proverb, “the chief does not fear insults”, and the fact that the Twi word for “insult” is very similar to the word for “fern”. Why might a king want to display large ferns on his crown?
- What about a duiker—a small, agile animal—might a powerful chief want to emulate? Why might this animal be more of a role model than a big, powerful animal?
- This object is all the more interesting because Akan royalty is most often marked by golden sandals, not crowns—crowns were a marker of European royalty, such as the British king and queen that put Ghana under colonial rule. Why, then, do you suppose that an Akan goldsmith would have made a crown for their chief? What signal might this send to the public at large?
- Consider the fact that this object was made in the 50 years before Ghana gained its independence from Britain (the first African nation to do so). Might that information change your interpretation of the object? Could it gain new political meaning in this light?
- Taking into account all of the above properties of this crown, how would you characterize the ideal Akan chief? How does this compare with what you would want in an ideal head of state?
Many Akan gold objects contain animal imagery and symbolism, just like this crown. Typically, animals are chosen for their physical characteristics or symbolic attributes. Guide your class to create a collaborative list of animals, beginning by researching the most common animals in western Africa, and then brainstorming characteristics that might be valued by the people who live there.
Prompt students to choose an animal from the first exercise, then create a portrait of the animal using metal sheets (such as aluminum or gold-colored foil). Students can begin by creating a sketch of their animal, depicting it in a way that highlights its defining characteristics. Then, invite them to experiment with materials, exploring the many different techniques that they can use to create pattern, texture, and character in metal art.
As an extension to the lesson, students can also repeat the exercise using animals from their own part of the globe, or any other region that they study in class.
Resources Available to Order
The Learning Through Art program is endowed by Melvyn and Cyvia Wolff.
The Learning Through Art curriculum website is made possible in part by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.
All Learning and Interpretation programs at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, receive endowment income from funds provided by the Louise Jarrett Moran Bequest; Caroline Wiess Law; the William Randolph Hearst Foundation; The National Endowment for the Humanities; the Fondren Foundation; BMC Software, Inc.; the Wallace Foundation; the Neal Myers and Ken Black Children’s Art Fund; the Favrot Fund; and Gifts in honor of Beth Schneider.