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Immaterial: Metals, Part Two Transcript

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Camille Dungy: Most metals are governed by very specific laws: When they melt, who they mix with, how they fall apart. In the first of our two metals episodes, we spoke about lead, tin, iron, and copper. This time we’re going to talk about metals that break the rules. Unlike almost any other metal, for example, gold will never tarnish or fade. Silver can be melted down repeatedly without losing a drop. And mercury? Lawbreaker number one. It isn’t even a solid at room temperature.

Daniel Carillo: There’s beauty in danger, right? So I think the attractiveness is the, the, sort of the allure, the shininess, the sort of fluid nature of it. But hidden behind that beauty is, is like… poison! [Laughs] Poison and death and illness.

Dungy: Oh, Mercury. Poison, danger, and incredible strangeness… but also enchantment and allure that, in the case we’re about to describe, sparked a lifelong artistic practice. 

Carillo: I go by Daniel Carrillo, but I’m Mexican. So it’s Daniel Carrillo, and my full name is Daniel Arturo Carrillo-Lozano. All my brothers had been hands-on people, you know, they’d sort of just been laborers and things like that. And they were always tinkering with the car. So I’ve always loved mechanical things. And my brother took photography in high school. He was four or five years older than me—six years older, I think. And he brought home a camera and that’s when I was like, ‘oh, wow, what is this thing?’ You know?

Dungy: Mercury is at the core of how Daniel’s cameras work, allowing him to tap into some very old ways of creating and protecting a desired image. In ancient times, alchemists tried to transform lead into gold, and mercury was the pivot point where such transformations began. Copper, lead, iron, and tin all have more earthy hues. But once you hit mercury, the metals of alchemy are reminiscent of the lights in our skies. As we continue our exploration of the magical possibilities of metals, we’re going to dive into the three final metals of alchemy: mercury, silver, and gold.

I’m Camille Dungy and this is Immaterial, where we look at materials commonly used in art, and learn what the materials themselves can teach us. 

Marco Leona: We had this little jar with mercury in this workshop or lab that my father and my grandfather had. 

Dungy: At The Met, scientist-in-charge Marco Leona practices much more stringent safety procedures. But he had a lax approach to lab safety as a kid. He used to pour mercury on surfaces just to watch it roll around.

Leona: Do not do this at home, but the other thing that was just so mesmerizing was sticking my finger in the mercury. Just imagine sticking your finger in very cold water that opposes some resistance. Because to move the mercury away, you’re really pushing on something that’s much heavier than water. It’s fifteen times heavier than water, denser than water. So you have to push; it offers some resistance. And it’s cold, because it conducts heat away from your body. So it’s, it’s really, really, um, a strange feeling. It’s something unnatural.

Dungy: Another name for mercury is quicksilver. I love how that word points directly to the strangeness of the metal. It looks like it should behave like silver, but it’s far too fast and fluid.

Carillo: Mercury sticks to gold pretty readily, and it sticks to a lot of metals. And it also destroys other metals as well. It doesn’t like aluminum, it destroys aluminum.

Dungy: As Daniel says, mercury is volatile and just… different.

Carillo: So it’s got this sort of like anger to it, this life to it, right? It’s a very sort of, like I said, beautiful and dangerous and, and sort of destructive. And there’s all these little characteristics that make it a very special thing. And it also helps you make pictures! [Laughs]

Dungy: Those pictures Daniel makes are called daguerreotypes. They are an extravaganza of metallic photography. You start with a sheet of copper. Then add a thin coat of silver plating. Polish that to a mirror-like shine. This is key, because the daguerreotype plate will act like a mirror that holds an image long after the sitter has moved on. Sensitize this mirror-like plate with iodine vapors, and then put it in the camera and expose it to light. Now, remove the plate from the camera and use mercury fumes to bring the captured image to life, and—last of all—enhance and stabilize the likeness with a layer of gold.

The Met has many daguerreotypes featuring architecture: crumbling columns at the temple of Bacchus, and panoramic views of ancient buildings across the Tiber River. And there’s a lovely, delicate one, featuring eighteen different exposures of the moon. But The Met also has a whole lot of portraits. Including a pair of images called Cornelius Conway Felton with His Hat and Coat. Daguerreotype portraiture seemed to be a medium that sometimes tempted people to get a bit playful. Harvard Greek literature professor Cornelius Felton poses in the diptych’s right side portrait. He looks buttoned up and steely, if a little bit rumpled. Felton isn’t wearing the academic robes or silk top hats favored by portrait sitters of his stature. According to The Met’s catalog, Felton “disdained constricting clothes.” He’d rather be out in the world, scaling ancient ruins. So in the panel on the left, Felton’s hand reaches for a broad, floppy workman’s hat, which is on a chair atop his coat. Felton’s body is out of the frame. The artist, John Adams Whipple, seems to have aided Felton in constructing a portrait of his own absence. 

One of the splendors of daguerreotypes is their clarity. This is one of the reasons Daniel is drawn to the medium.

Carillo: They sorta read well, because it’s a shiny plate and there’s the ability to capture a tremendous amount of detail. It’s infinite. There’s no grain to it.

Dungy: For the very first daguerreotype Daniel ever made, he went to a workshop at the former home of Kodak founder George Eastman. Eastman House is the oldest photography museum in the world, and the workshop was a portal to the past.

Carillo: I flew down to Rochester, and that’s where I made that self portrait. And that was one of the first few plates that I ever made. And that was interesting, just to see yourself as you would be back in 1850, you know? That’s, that’s how you would look. So the people haven’t changed, just the process has. 

Dungy: In part one of our metallic exploration, we spoke about big things: giant bells, an epic book of stories… Everything we’ll discuss this time was made to fit in the hand. A daguerreotype was a direct reflection of yourself that you could hold.

Stephen Pinson: Daguerreotypes, because they’re made from polished silver plates, actually act not only as a photographic surface, but also as a mirror. So they’re called “mirrors with memory.” And I think one of the most amazing things about interacting with a daguerreotype is this quality that you’re both looking into an image from the past. But also in a sense, you’re looking at your own reflection in the mirror’s surface.

Dungy: Stephen Pinson, a photography curator at The Met, says that if we want to explore the origins of this form of photography, we need to go to its source: a man named Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre. He’s best remembered as one of the fathers of photography. But that’s not how his career began. Daguerre got his start on the stage.

[Music: a woman singing an exuberant opera song.]

Pinson: He was originally trained as a draftsman and painter, and created set designs for the Parisian Opera in the early nineteenth century. And simultaneous to that, he was also working as a set designer for the theaters of the Boulevard, you know, mostly popular melodramas. And that’s how he really made his name. So Daguerre was really working for the high and the low of the Parisian theater.

Dungy: Daguerre was a showman through and through. What set designs for high art operas and the more rough and tumble melodramas of street theater had in common was that they were meant to fool the eye. So Daguerre took the concept a step further and developed something called the Paris diorama. If you ever had to bring a shoebox to life with paper cutouts in elementary school, you have been touched by Daguerre’s legacy. But the original dioramas were more like nineteenth century augmented reality.

Pinson: Think about it being both a building and the kind of paintings that were shown in the building. So you would walk into a darkened theater and there would be sort of a, a vestibule that the crowd would walk into. And in this chamber, there would be paintings that Daguerre had made on the ceiling, and there would be fabric, different colored fabric that would give you the sensation of being in like a kaleidoscopic space. You would be led into your seats and it would be dark, but not completely dark because part of the whole sociability of the space was that you should be able to see and be seen. [Laughs] And then the curtain would lift and you would see this enormous scene in front of you. An enormous painting would be illuminated by natural light windows in the ceiling. And by moving colored screens between the windows and the painting, Daguerre was able to achieve these different lighting effects. So it would look like for instance: the sun would be rising or setting, or a storm would move out over the scene and a rain storm would start. Little by little, during the course of, you know, ten to fifteen minutes. And then you would be rotated, the theater would be rotated, and another scene would be revealed. And that would generally be an interior scene to contrast with the landscape that had been previously seen.

I think he’s often considered a Barnum-like character or even, you know, a Steven Spielberg, producing these grand spectacles for people.

Dungy: As with P.T. Barnum, part of the way Daguerre implemented these grand spectacles was by manipulating what people saw and when.

When he made a photograph, Daguerre would hold out the plate to viewers after removing it from the camera: no image to be seen. And then the plate passed through mercury vapor and came out transformed.

Daguerreotypes allowed us to hold up a surprisingly accurate mirror to ourselves. But people wondered if they could trust their eyes. From the beginning, photography has been dogged by the question of whether it was a form of art, or just a trick of the light. And at the inception of the form, that question swept away part of its creator’s identity.

Pinson: Above all else: he sought recognition for being an artist. It was very difficult in nineteenth century Paris to be recognized as a talented artist, even though he clearly was. The invention of the daguerreotype was kind of his last-ditch effort to gain recognition as this very talented artist, the irony being that he became world famous as the inventor of this photographic process.

Dungy: Photography has come to be seen as a way of mechanically recording the world around us. But Stephen says that begs a question. Is the view of the world that’s captured in a mysterious box a completely realist view of our surroundings? Or, like the wonder of a diorama’s stage: is it something totally new? People didn’t know how much credit to give an artist whose work simply, and directly, reflected the world. Part of the problem is that no one knew how to think about the human behind the machine.

Pinson: What we think of when we think of modern art is the facture of an artist, the hand of an artist. And when Daguerre introduced the daguerreotype, you know, it was all about the fact that the artist was no longer necessary. The sun was doing everything automatically. All you needed to do was have the camera and the right chemicals and the sun would do the rest. And so ironically, Daguerre, by promoting the daguerreotype and photography as this sort of automatic process, removed the artists from the equation. So that’s why he, you know, was… for a long time, his prior career as a painter and as a decorator was completely forgotten.

Dungy: The Met has a daguerreotype of Louis Daguerre taken by an unknown photographer. Daguerre was notoriously shy in front of the camera, so there aren’t many images of him left. In this photo he’s seated, with one arm resting on a table. He’s squinting, his head cocked to one side, and he’s staring directly into the camera as it captures him.

Carillo: It’s a very interesting thing to be able to hold something that was, was there with the person or the thing. That image, you know, is a reflection, literally: a reflection of what was there in front of it. There is no separation of, you know, this photograph was taken and digitally, sent off… you know, there’s nothing like that. The photograph is the image and it’s directly based off of what was in front of it.

Dungy: This particular image is damaged in the center, which makes its mirrorlike quality even more vivid. When you look at it, you see a fractured version of yourself, superimposed on an 1844 image of one of the fathers of photography. Louis Daguerre’s vision of himself remains constant, crystallized in time, even as the faces looking into that mirror change.

A hundred and eighty years after daguerreotypes were born, photography continues to reinvent its role in our lives. For one thing, it sped up, and got better at capturing the messy movements of the world.

Leona: If I think of photography, I think of Selma. I think of the girl with the napalm explosions in the back. I think of what photography has done to document atrocities, but also to make people better by holding that mirror to our collective faces.

Dungy: Like a daguerreotype, mercury itself is both an enigma and a reflection of us. And through photography, it began retraining us to see. But mercury’s not the only metal that can show us to ourselves.

Leona: Throughout history, I think, if you look at the greatest stories of oppression, it’s really about silver.

Dungy: After the break, we’ll find out why.

Dungy: Like mercury, silver is often used in mirrors. But the image held up by silver is often unflattering. Mining is ugly work, and often cruel. Especially in antiquity, enslaved children were used because they were small enough to fit into slender shafts. Pliny the Elder once called mining “a quest to draw out riches from the abode of the spirits of the departed.” And in that quest, an untold number of people have lost their lives deep underground.

Silver is one of the most valuable metals on the planet. But we’re the ones who gave it that meaning.

Leona: Greed, unfortunately, is also a motor of discovery. And so chemistry was born out of that desire to squeeze the last bit of silver out, and separate it from the dull, annoying, lazy lead. So determining how much silver you have in a coin, or how much silver you have left in the residue of your ore.

Dungy: People wanted all that silver because, for a long time, the metal alone held value. But due to the sheer size of the Roman empire, when they began extracting silver to make coins, the effects rippled across the world.

Irene Soto Marín: The intensification, I would say of the minting of coinage that happened during the Roman period, you can very clearly see, because of studies that have been done. They leave this kind of layer affecting the air. Essentially it gets trapped in these ice cores.

Dungy: In other words: the Romans mined so much precious metal that it polluted Europe for five hundred years and this pollution was preserved in the ice sheets of Greenland. Harvard economic historian Irene Soto Marín says that state control over these metals was tightly maintained.

Soto Marín: Silver in general and other precious metals also had their prestige long before coinage was invented properly. And I think it has to do with the durability of the metal. In the case of both gold and silver, there’s a reason why they’ve been chosen. It’s because they, they last a long time and they don’t change their physical form. So there’s a sense of trust in what you have.

Dungy: This need to create a sense of trust is crucial, something we humans seem to long for across space and time. And trust is a big part of what the metals we are talking about in this episode helped provide. So we invented coins, which revolutionized the way we thought about and used metals.

Soto Marín: Metals have been used as a unit of exchange for a long time, weighed metal. But coins were only invented relatively recently. It’s only been in the last, um, gosh, not even twenty-five—yeah, two thousand five hundred years—maybe twenty-five hundred years that we’ve had coinage. So when we think about the economic history of humans, coinage is a very recent invention.

Dungy: The Met has a vast collection of silver currency, some dating as far back as the third century B.C.E. Some feature the faces of powerful gods like Apollo. Or Zeus, whose abs are still admirably well-defined, even after more than two thousand years. Another one is inscribed with words from the Qur’an, and there’s one that’s so misshapen that it’s practically as oblong as those pennies you press at tourist sites. Whereas some materials gain value through scarcity, coins maintain their value through a kind of muchness, when there are a lot to move around. And at the core of their usefulness is the fact that we believe in their worth.

Soto Marín: A coin has two values: the intrinsic value, which is the value of the metal, the quantity of gold, quantity of silver or whatever precious metal is in them. And then the nominal value, which is what the coin is worth. So for example, right now we have coins that the state tells us are worth twenty-five cents. The content of precious metal in them is probably not worth twenty-five cents. So again, we have a discrepancy. What we’re being told by the state is that that coin is worth this. So in that sense, you know, fiducia, you’re trusting. Fiduciary: you’re trusting the state, because it’s a system that’s built on trust.

If you think about checks, bank notes, all of these things where like, it’s a higher authority telling you that this is legal tender. Not the actual market value of the object. So that is what fiduciary means. And we see periods of fiduciarity quite heavily in antiquity sometimes. Especially when governments—most salient case, the Roman empire in the third century—manipulate the coinage, telling them it’s worth the same, even though they’re decreasing and decreasing and decreasing the precious metal content in the coins.

Dungy: Silver coinage is yet another thing the Romans borrowed from the Greeks. In Ancient Greece, coins featured the symbols of cities: the goddess Athena for Athens, or a rose on the silver didrachm from Rhodes. But after Rome adopted silver currency, its rulers began to put their own faces on coins - almost like a guarantee of value.

There’s a sloppiness to the Roman coins from that period. One of the coins from The Met’s collection is called an antoninianus, from the reign of Philip I around 248 CE. The coin is cut slightly off-center. Philip’s wife, Octacilia Severa, stares sternly to the right, while beyond its intended edge, the coin flares into silvery space.

This coin was a source of inflation all by itself. The denomination was two denarii, but from its inception the silver content only equaled one and a half denarii. It was further debased over time, as the silver mines of Spain were exhausted and prices spiked in the marketplace. So here’s this coin, messy and inaccurate. You could see it as a poorly executed means to an end, or you could see it as something else.

We forget that at some point, everything we use today had to be invented, says Benjamin Harnett. He’s a digital engineer for the New York Times and an independent scholar of ancient technology like coins.

Benjamin Harnett: Silver became this acceptable thing to pay your obligations to the state.

Dungy: And for the state to pay its obligations to you… and by you, I mean soldiers.

Harnett: During the civil wars, with Caesar on one side, Pompey on the other, they both would issue coins. And the same thing after with the triumvirate, um, you know, with Antony and Octavian and the third guy who nobody can ever remember.

Dungy: (That guy is Marcus Aemilius Lepidus.)

Harnett: They would have, it was called ‘mint moving with.’ Basically, they’d be minting coins on the go to pay their soldiers, um, you know, in sort of this frenetic action. And I can imagine that when you needed money really fast, the guy manning the mint would be like, ‘you know, we can let those pass. Go ahead. The side of the coin is in the middle of the die? No problem.’

Dungy: For the Romans, currency was inextricably linked to conquest. The standard silver coin, the denarius, was used to pay a soldier’s wages. Currency circulation was driven by those coins in soldiers’ pockets, as they pushed the edges of empire further and further from Rome. In that way, silver coins were a tool of war. They were also a very effective form of advertising.

Soto Marín: One of the first things that usurpers did when they, if someone took a claim to the throne in a province or usurped the throne, the first thing that they would do, was to mint a coin. If you think about the fact that, you know, you would never see the emperor in your life. You wouldn’t know what he looked like, except from his face on coins and on maybe a statue, if you lived in a city or something that would erect a statue in his image. So the power of coins as tools of propaganda was unparalleled in the ancient world. The main tool of the face of the emperor was coinage and it traveled everywhere.

Dungy: Julius Caesar was a master of this. One of his earliest denarii, from around 49 B.C.E., focused on his priestly implements as the leader of the ancient Roman religion: a ladle to pour out libations, a sacred axe for sacrifices, a ritual cap. As with many of these early coins, there is also an animal—in this case an elephant—linking Caesar to the victories of Alexander the Great.

Dungy: Another coin from this era features Aeneas and Venus, the mother-son duo from whom Caesar claimed to be descended. In both cases, the focus was on the inevitability of Caesar’s divine right to rule. Distributing the coin helped perform the almost religious sleight of hand by which the state asked people to believe in it.

Harnett: Money, the coin, is a substitute as well for something else. And so there’s this religious connection of coins to transubstantiation, to some kind of like… almost a magical process.

Dungy: And at the heart of that magic? Fiducia, or trust.

Harnett: They were perfectly happy to use undervalued currency, as long as they knew that the state was behind it, as long as they knew that that stamp was good. And so you had to trust. If you had a strong functioning government and a strong functioning society, the trust was in the coins. And a lot of, you know, libertarians and other people have this view that it’s the coins that established the trust. And it’s really the reverse. It’s the society that has to be in a good state and in a trusted state to make the coins valuable, beyond their metal content.

Dungy: The interesting thing here is that trust also has to exist between you and me. It’s not just that Julius Caesar says this coin is worth two denarii. Caesar isn’t in the marketplace with us. I have to trust that if you give me this coin to buy two denarii worth of eggs, I can use it with the next person to buy an equivalent amount of bread. ‘Currency’ shares a root with ‘current,’ as in the forward force of water in a river. The purpose of money is to move.

Soto Marín: We could decide collectively that we’re going to use, I don’t know, pencils as a currency. And, if you agree with it and I agree with it, I’ll say ‘okay, I’ll give you three pencils for a sandwich.’ And then the next person will be like, ‘oh, I’ll give you four pencils for whatever.’ Like, it’s just: all you need to do is two people to agree. Anything can be used as currency, as long as there’s trust between the two people exchanging a good.

Dungy: We’ve moved away from silver as a monetary standard. Instead, the dollar and euro are used across the world as trusted rates of exchange. Silver remains critical to the economy, particularly in electronics. But Marco Leona says that untethering it from currency has set silver free.

Leona: Maybe silver, you know… of course, metals are not bad or good. But even if you think of them in this symbolic and loaded way, if you, if you make them carriers of meaning: silver found redemption.

Dungy: But not all metals divorced themselves from finance. Our last metal started out as a tool of commerce, then ended up lending a sense of identity to an empire. And to hold it is to hold a kind of transformative power. First stop: a marketplace where the earth shimmers with gold.

Yaëlle Biro: An early-nineteenth-century visitor to Kumasi, which is the capital of the Ashanti Empire, witnessed the fact that the soils of the marketplaces… there were two marketplaces in Kumasi. The soil of these marketplaces were washed off at intervals in order to collect the gold particles. And that could yield up to eight hundred ounces of gold dust. So it just gives you an idea of how much gold was circulating, and gold dust was being exchanged in these marketplaces at the time.

Dungy: Yaëlle Biro is an Africanist art historian, and a former curator at The Met. She’s talking about the Ashanti empire, in what’s now the country of Ghana. The Ashanti people are part of an ethnic group known as the Akan, one of the major ethnic groups of modern-day Ghana.

Biro: Even though there were a number of Akan states that were present, and that already were dividing powers in the region before the early eighteenth century, at the end of the seventeenth and early eighteenth century is really the moment when the Ashanti empire rose to power, making use of its gold. And so as a result, the gold itself as a material became… came to symbolize the Ashanti empire.

Dungy: Gold is found in a variety of settings in Ghana, from quartz veins to ore deposits. But as often happens in gold-rich areas, it was first found as a shining dust in the water.

Biro: Alluvial gold was just found in the rivers, which also helped locating where, you know, larger mines might be located. But first it would be identified in the rivers, in the waters.

Dungy: As was the case with all the metals we’ve discussed, the Akan people went to great lengths to extract all this gold. Those lengths reflect the material’s value as a part of Akan culture, and also as a crucial building block of empire.

Biro: All the nuggets would have been the prerogative of the chief. All the mining activity was also subjected to taxes. And so really most of the gold that was mined ended up for the state.

Dungy: And we’re talking a lot of gold. Geographically, Ghana makes up less than one percent of the continent’s landmass. But it is the largest gold producer in Africa. And unlike during the Roman empire, when metal was minted into coins, in the Ashanti empire your pocket change would have literally been dust. Meticulously calibrated goldweights, often cast in brass shapes that referenced proverbs, were used to calculate the value of a bag of gold dust.

The Met has goldweights in the shapes of seed pods, grasshoppers, lobster claws, and small ceremonial swords. My favorite looks like a chameleon, with an armored back and abdomen. Three of the lizard’s four legs are positioned as if wrapped around a tree limb. The last leg sticks out, away from the body, almost like the chameleon is preparing to push off its resting place and climb.

Goldweights continue to be important cultural markers of both commerce and regional unity. Even now, there is a goldweight in the shape of a sawfish depicted on both the coins and paper currency of the West African Franc. It’s used in eight francophone countries, including Ghana’s immediate neighbors Togo, Burkina Faso, and the Ivory Coast.

Yaw Nyarko: Gold is very, very, very important among the Ashanti. You know, it’s a source of wealth. It’s a source of identity.

Dungy: In June 1960, the colony formerly known as Gold Coast became the independently governed Republic of Ghana. Yaw Nyarko was born in Accra just four months earlier. He’s now an economics professor at New York University, and also holds a ceremonial title in the Ashanti region of Ghana.

Nyarko: I am a sub chief; you know, there, there are different levels of chiefs. And so I’m called the Aboafohene of the Kumawu traditional area. Every forty-two days, I go back to Ghana, pour libation on the stools.

Dungy: The stools he’s talking about are knee high, intricately carved wooden seats that are central to Akan royal culture. Pouring libations on them is a way to show respect.

Nyarko: And afterwards, you know, we’re all gathered. And I have something to say to the chief.

Dungy: Here’s the problem with that: Yaw isn’t allowed to speak directly to the chief. None of the chief’s subjects are… except for one.

Nyarko: So I’ll get up and, you know, I’ll lower my cloth a little bit as a sign of respect to the chief. And then I’ll look not at the chief, but at the ȯkyeame.

Dungy: An ȯkyeame is a linguist. They’re like a combination of ambassador, chief of staff, and trusted counselor. And, most important in an oral tradition, the ȯkyeame is the keeper of the chief’s speech.

Nyarko: So the ȯkyeame is a very, very important position. Very important. The chief never talks directly to his people, and his people never talk directly to him. It’s always through the ȯkyeame. He’s the ears and the voice of the chief, that’s the primary role of that.

When we have these large gatherings of the chief and the people, you know, it’s a big space. And sometimes when the chief speaks, you don’t hear what he’s saying, or you don’t hear all of it. You know, the chief is sitting down, he’s surrounded by his, his people and his other chiefs. And so his voice doesn’t necessarily boom out. The ȯkyeame is standing. And so he can stand at a strategic place. He hears what the chief says, and then he’s like a microphone and he broadcasts it out.

Dungy: And the microphone goes both ways. If you want to be heard, the ȯkyeame is your best bet.

Nyarko: Maybe one particular chief is there with his people and it’s a big, like… all of the Ashanti chiefs are together. So there’s a Kumawu chief. There’s the Juaben chief. There’s the Bekwai chief. And you want to have a word with the Kumawu chief. So you go to the area where, you know the Kumawu chief is there, you know you can’t just go up to the Kumawu chief and, and talk. So what do you do? You look for the linguist. The linguist is the one who is going to allow you to speak to the chief.

Nyarko: How do you know, in a crowd, who the linguist is? The linguist is holding the staff.

Dungy: There are two linguists’ staffs of office that live at The Met. One of them measures just over five feet, as tall as my eleven-year-old daughter. A thin layer of ornate gold foil covers the entire surface, revealing the geometric designs carved on the wood underneath. Yaëlle says the foil would have been hammered in sections onto the carved wooden staff using tiny nails.

Biro: It is a long cylindrical shaft that really is most of its height. And then just at the top, you have a finial that is a depiction of a spider positioned at the center of its web.

The web is represented in open work. So you can see through the threads of the web and also through the legs of the spider. And on both sides of the spider, and on either side of the web itself, you have two figures. Two male figures, that are standing, looking towards one another. And each of the figures have one arm stretched ahead.

Dungy: The spider in this ȯkyeame’s staff of office represents the ultimate master of speech: Kwaku Anansi. Anansi is a demigod, who’s at the center of storytelling in Akan tradition. Every Ghanaian child knows his name.

Nyarko: I grew up in the village, in a very small village. And, there wasn’t always… you know, we were actually in one of the better villages. We had electricity maybe three hours a day. But many nights there was no electricity at all. And so a whole bunch of us kids will go and sit, you know, on the corner of a house somewhere, with like a little stoop or step where we could all sit. And then there’ll be like a fifteen-year-old. And you know, when you’re eleven a fifteen-year-old is like a really big kid.

And so, we would shout: “Anansesem! Anansesem!” Meaning: ‘tell us an Anansi story, tell us an Anansi story.’ And then, you know, if we get lucky, we’ll get one of these, uh, grown-up kids? Will come and say, ‘okay, you younger kids, sit down. I am going to tell you an Anansi story.’

Dungy: Anansi is a trickster who doesn’t always play fair. But he also holds all the world’s wisdom in his hands.

Nyarko: The spider is used in many, many stories. So stories are all woven around the spider. ‘Once upon a time, the spider met a lion.’ Or ‘the spider met a giraffe, and asked, you know, why do you have spots like this?’ And then the story goes on.

Dungy: The Akan tradition is oral, which means skill with speech will get you a long way.

Nyarko: I could of course tell you about beautiful language. How you can use language to sway people’s opinions, or to make them laugh, or storytelling. It’s all part of very, very rich language, which, you know, the Ashanti language is great for that.

Dungy: And the link between beauty, wisdom, power, speech, and gold? All reside in the body of the linguist’s staff.

Nyarko: And so you see gold on the staff to represent the wealth of the chief that the linguist is quote unquote serving.

Dungy: Not all staffs of office were fully gilded. So Yaw Nyarko says the spiderweb staff must have belonged to the linguist of a particularly powerful chief. But a truly great ȯkyeame was worth their weight in gold.

Nyarko: The linguists are normally chosen, or trained, to be great at speech. So a member of the audience will say something to the linguist, which needs to be passed on to the chief. And of course the person saying it will say it in some not necessarily poetic way. Somebody says, you know, ‘I think we need to hurry up and do something,’ right? That’s what the person says. And then the linguist will translate it as saying, ‘Dear chief: this man who just spoke, he says we should make ourselves light. Because when we are light, you can go fast.’ You see what I mean? So ‘hurry up; has become ‘make yourself light.’ Little things like that is what the linguists do which just makes the speech beautiful.

Dungy: There we are again, with the transformative power of gold. The linguist’s ability to translate is inextricably linked to the staff itself and the metal that coats it. The staff is what makes speech possible.

But maybe there are other ways to communicate values. Yaw Nyarko is in the process of establishing a network of museums in settings like palaces and shrines, plus a research center that will hold contemporary art.

Nyarko: The collecting focus for almost all of the museum but for one part is telling the story of the people. We have a very beautiful story. You know, I’m, I’m writing the history of the Kumawu area and, you know, the colonial period—the white man—it’s not that major. We were doing our own stuff. The stories are being told without them.

Dungy: It’s not just staffs that hold the power to speak. All artifacts carry stories layered within them.

Nyarko: We have these, it’s called batakari. When you’re going to war, there’s this particular kind of a garment that you’d wear. And the garment has little like, amulets; they almost look like bottle caps.

And so those were like charms, or goodwill things that the chief would wear when going to war. Things like that are the things that we like to collect. Because once you have them there, then you can tell the story about how the wars used to take place. You can tell a story which will connect the object to the peoples’ history.

So the goal is to collect things, to tell people about the way we lived. The way we believed. How we did things.

Dungy: Maybe that’s what all museums do: empower objects to speak, and share the stories they hold inside. Objects that reflect who we are, who we have been, and perhaps who we may one day become. It’s that curiosity that keeps us coming back over and over again - to see all the ways that metals have been used, from goldweights to staffs to the work of the contemporary Ghanaian artist El Anatsui, whose gleaming waterfalls of woven metal bring yet another dimension to traditional Akan kente cloth.

Perhaps, despite their connections to empires and greed, violence and danger and poison, even when they’re breaking the rules, we have learned to trust metals, to depend on them, because metal gives us a way to tell the story of us.

As Marco Leona says…

Leona: You look at materials and the meanings they carried. And the aesthetic, cultural, social, religious, economic motivation behind choices. So we look at the materials, we look at the gold, the iron, the copper, the tin, the arsenic, but we really want to discover something about the people who put them there.

Dungy: Alchemy is a process of transmutation - the mythical path that metals follow on the road from lead to gold. The seven metals of alchemy course through our bodies, and are reflected in our skies. They capture us: our images, our stories, our reaching toward the divine. Everything made of metal performs a kind of magic act. Suspend your disbelief, and watch one thing transform into something else. A weeping puppet, a frozen mirror, a book of stories, a staff that holds the speech of an empire, and even the coins in your back pocket. Little pieces of transubstantiation that travel in our hands. We imbue them with meaning, and in return they give us value: they show us who we are.

Dungy: I’m Camille Dungy, and this is Immaterial.

Immaterial is produced by The Metropolitan Museum of Art and Magnificent Noise. This episode was produced by Adwoa Gyimah-Brempong.

Our production staff also includes Jesse Baker, Elyse Blennerhassett, Eleanor Kagan, and Eric Nuzum.

And from the Metropolitan Museum — Sarah Wambold, Benjamin Korman, Rachel Smith, and Douglas Hegley. This season would not be possible without Sofie Andersen.

Sound design by Ariana Martinez. Engineering by Ariana Martinez and Paul Schneider. This episode includes original music by Austin Fisher. Fact-checking by Christine Baird.

The podcast is made possible by Dasha Zhukova Niarchos. Additional support is provided by Bloomberg Philanthropies.

This episode would not have been possible without Yaëlle Biro, former curator of African Art; Stephen Pinson, Curator of Photographs; Michael Seymour, Associate Curator in the Department of Ancient Near Eastern Art; Alan Shapiro, Dietrich von Bothmer Research Scholar; Bobby Walsh, Assistant Collections Manager in the Department of Photographs.

And special thanks to Lauren Johnson, and Kwabena and Rose Gyimah-Brempong.

To check out the ȯkyeame’s staff, a selection of daguerreotypes, and all those silver coins, check out The Met’s website at

I’m Camille Dungy.