Ghana; Akan, Asante
Gold; Diam. 5 1/2 in. (13.97 cm)
Lent by The Estate of Christian Humann (L.1982.92)
Luxurious courtly arts wrought in gold are the prized emblems of leadership of the Akan peoples, and the Asante kingdom in particular, in what is today the modern nation of Ghana. By the mid-eighteenth century, the Asante kingdom had unified this culturally homogeneous region and asserted its control over trade in gold, textiles, and slaves. Asante's remarkable wealth and political vitality were symbolized by the extraordinarily rich art traditions propagated and sustained at the court by the king, or Asantahene.
In Akan thought, gold is considered an earthly counterpart to the sun and the physical manifestation of life's vital force, or kra. Cast gold disks called akrafokonmu ("soul washer's disk") are worn as protective emblems by important members of the court, including royal attendants known as akrafo, or "soul washers." Individuals selected for this title are beautiful young men and women born on the same day of the week as the king. Worthy of serving the king in light of their youth and vigor, they ritually purify and replenish the king's vital powers and, in doing so, help to stabilize and protect the nation.
This akrafokonmu displays a central rosette surrounded by a circular border of repeating vegetal motifs. The inspiration for these intertwining leaves and tendrils may have come from North Africa, a region intimately linked to the Asante kingdom through the trans-Saharan gold trade. Even so, the composition as a whole reflects specifically Akan aesthetic concepts, in that the circular form of the disk and the concentric arrangement of the designs evoke the emanating rays of the sun that were the source of the kra of the king and his people.