Akan Zoomorphic Gilt-Wood Staff Finial Depicting a Bear

SKU DK.044
Circa

20 th Century AD

Dimensions

16.5″ (41.9cm) high

Medium

Gold

Origin

Ghana

Gallery Location

USA


 

This powerful and beautifully-rendered giltwood sculpture of an animal standing on a pedestal base is in fact the finial of a linguist or translator staff, made by the Akan people of what was once – aptly – known as the Gold Coast (now Ghana). While somewhat bearlike, there are no bears in Africa, and it is instead more likely to represent a hyaena, as evidenced by the powerful forequarters, lower, slouched rear legs and the massive head. The limbs are plain gilt, while the centre and top – especially the shoulders – are hatched with incised lines to which the gilt adheres faithfully. The head is large and fairly plain, with round eyes, a small mouth and stubby ears. The feet are large and carefully-detailed.

The Akan are a loose assemblage of tribes – notably including the Ashanti and the Baoulé – that share general cultural trends while maintaining separate tribal identities. Their society is highly ritualised, with numerous minor gods that represent the natural world, but who receive their power from a principal god (the Ashante principal god is named Onyame). The Akan tribes are highly independent and autocratic – their nation has come under the covetous gaze of numerous European and Northern African (Islamic) colonialists, and this has made them rigid in terms of social order and centralised power. The main reason for this imperial interest was the long history of gold mining and gold working in the area, which has been taking place for at least 600 years.

The Akan consider gold to be the embodiment of sunlight and a physical manifestation of life’s vital force, or “kra”. They are known for the manufacture of regalia for the royal courts but also finds its way into almost every aspect of elite life. Solid gold and gilding was used to make many of the court insignia that signalled status in the Akan royal court system. Elites often wore gold jewellery, as did the king and his retinue. Special insignia were made to mark out courtiers or diplomats with particular functions, such as translators, which is the reason for the current piece.

As stated, this is the head of a linguist (or translator) staff. Known as kyemae poma, they are still used in Ghana as markers of special status within and between royal courts, as diplomats and translators. They are typically zoomorphic, with hollow bases, on a blackwood staff banded with gold plates at intervals. They were based upon the European habit of carrying silver-topped canes, and thus are a relatively late development in the Akan cultural repertoire. Courtly regalia were decorated with designs that were referred to as “abosodeå”, or “things of the fetish”, and which held some significance for the user or the tribe in question. This is a dynamic and attractive piece of African art.

T. Garrard, 1989. 'Gold of Africa'. Prestel-Verlag Publishing, Munich.

D. Ross, 'The Iconography of Asante Sword Ornaments' African Arts, Vol. 11, No. 1 (Oct., 1977), pp. 16-91.

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