Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Art of the Asante Kingdom

In the seventeenth century, the region of West Africa known as the Gold Coast (modern Ghana) was dotted with several small-scale principalities populated by peoples belonging to the Akan cultural group. Linked by trade routes, a shared language, and similar belief systems, these states nonetheless remained separate entities until the early eighteenth century, when Asante, an inland kingdom ruled by a chief named Osei Tutu, embarked on a process of territorial expansion that united them as one kingdom. By 1750, Asante had become a large empire whose borders were roughly congruent with those of Ghana today. Developing an inclusive model of leadership that emphasized points of similarity and adopted traditions from throughout the territory for courtly use, Osei Tutu promoted unity among the peoples over whom he ruled and cultivated a strong national identity that has remained to the present day.

The kingdom’s active role in the gold, cloth, and slave trades brought vast wealth that fostered especially rich artistic traditions. The king himself was perceived as a creative force whose dynamic patronage of the arts, along with his health and appearance, were considered an important metaphor for his kingdom’s strength and stability. The art of Asante, like that of all Akan peoples, wove together the verbal and the visual by illustrating spoken proverbs that communicated accepted truths and practical advice. In courtly art, verbal motifs relating to the cohesion and prosperity of the kingdom were used extensively.