TRIBAL AFRICAN ART
ASANTE (ACHANTI, ASHANTE, ASHANTI)
The Asante region of southern Ghana is a remnant of the Ashanti Empire, which was founded in the early 17th century when, according to legend, a golden stool descended from heaven into the lap of the first king, Osei Tutu. The stool is believed to house the spirit of the Ashanti people in the same way that an individual's stool houses his spirit after death.
The Asante number 1,5 million. The early Asante economy depended on the trade of gold and enslaved peoples to Mande and Hausa traders, as well as to Europeans along the coast. In return for acting as the middlemen in the slave trade, the Asante received firearms, which were used to increase their already dominant power, and various luxury goods that were incorporated into Asante symbols of status and political office. The forest surrounding the Asante served as an important source of kola nuts, which were sought after for gifts and used as a mild stimulant among the Muslim peoples to the north. In traditional Asante society, in which inheritance was through the maternal line, a woman's essential role was to bear children, preferably girls.
The art of Ashanti can be classified into two main groups: metalwork (casts of brass or gold using a lost-wax method and objects made of hammered metal sheets) and woodcarvings. Fertility and children are the most frequent themes in the wooden sculptures of the Asante. Thus the most numerous works are akuaba fertility figures and mother-and-child figures called Esi Mansa. The acuaba are dolls with disk-shaped heads embodying their concept of beauty and carried by women who want to become pregnant and to deliver a beautiful child. The fame of these objects derives from a legend asserting that a woman who has worn one will give birth to a particularly beautiful daughter. A Ghanaian source indicates another use: when a child disappeared, the acuaba statue was placed with food and silver coins at the edge of the forest to attract the malevolent spirit responsible: the spirit would then exchange the child for the statue. Sculptured mother-and-child figures show the mother nursing or holding her breast. Such gestures express Asante ideas about nurturing, the family, and the continuity of a matrilineage through a daughter or of a state through a son. The mother-and-child figures are kept in royal and commoner shrines where they emphasize the importance of the family and lineage. The Asante are famous for their ceremonial stools carved with an arched sit set over a foot, referring to a proverb or a symbol of wisdom. They are usually made for a chief when he takes office and are adorned with beads or copper nails and sheets. In rare cases, when the chief is sufficiently important, the stool is placed in a special room following his death to commemorate his memory. Ashanti chairs are based on 17th-century European models and, unlike stools; do not have any spiritual function. They are used as prestige objects by important chiefs during festivities or significant gatherings.
Also are produced staffs for royal spokesmen, which, like the handles of state swords, are covered in gold foil. The success of the Ashanti Empire depended on the trade in gold not only with Europeans at the coast but also with the Muslim north. Gold dust was the currency, weighed against small brass weights that were often geometric or were representations recalling well-known proverbs. Asante weavers developed a style of weaving of great technical mastery, incorporating imported silk.The Asante developed remarkably diverse kuduo containers cast of copper alloys. Kuduo were used in many ways. They held gold dust and other valuables, but could also be found in important political and ritual contexts. Some kuduo were buried with their owners, while others were kept in the palace shrine rooms that housed the ancestral stools of deceased state leaders. Life and the afterlife, the present and the past, were enhanced and made more meaningful by the presence of these elegant prestige vessels. The Asante also cast fine gold jewelry, as do the Baule of Côte d'Ivoire, who separated from them in the mid-18th century. The deceased are honored by fired-clay memorial heads.
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