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
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.
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.
- Without looking too closely at the imagery or details, what are your gut reactions to this crown? What does it make you think of; who might have worn it?
- Now, look closely at the details: imagery, shapes, and decorations. What words could be used to describe it? Is there anything about the crown that surprises you, or that you wouldn’t expect to see on a crown?
- Can you imagine how the metalsmith would have made this crown?
- Why do you think the Akan chief chose gold as the material for this crown? Also consider the size of the crown. Why would he want it to be so tall?
- This was made in the Akan region of central and southern Ghana, where a common proverb is “The elephant is big for nothing; it is the duiker [small antelope] that rules the forest”. Another is “The chief does not fear insults”; the Akan word for “insult” is very similar to the word for “fern”. What do those mean? What do they have to do with this crown?
- Though Europeans used crowns to identify their rulers, Akan royalty is more often marked by gold-ornamented sandals. Why do you think this crown was made, then? Consider the fact that this crown was made 50 to 7 years before Ghana gained independence from Great Britain.
• Many African gold objects and African masks contain animal imagery and animal symbolism. Typically, animals are chosen as symbols because of their physical characteristics or other attributes. Research the most common animals in western Africa. What are some of the characteristics of these animals that would be most valued by African societies? Why?
• Choose an animal from the first exercise that you think has important or special physical characteristics. Now imagine that you are a goldsmith and create a sketch of what your animal might look like in gold. Keep in mind all the decorative techniques you can use in your work. How realistic do you want your animal to look?
• Experiment with sheets of gold-colored foil and practice some of the techniques that were used on the Akan crown. Pay special attention to craftsmanship since such a gold object would be made for a ruler or person of high standing.
• Write and illustrate proverbs based on animal symbolism.
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.