Words by Sebastian Smee, The Washington Post
The plot of the Marvel superhero movie “Black Panther,” if you hadn’t heard, involves a metal with magical properties. The film addresses subjects such as African kingship, female power, colonialism, slavery and the international movements of African artifacts.
Strangely, more or less the same ingredients have gone into “The Power of Gold: Asante Royal Regalia From Ghana” at the Dallas Museum of Art. The show – organized well before “Black Panther’s” release – is based not, however, in fantasy, but in historical reality. It’s an education.
The magical (and fictional) metal in “Black Panther” is vibranium. Extracted from a fallen meteorite, it was long concealed from the outside world by the people of Wakanda – until, that is, T’Challa became king and decided to trade small quantities of it to trustworthy foreigners, thereby enriching and modernizing his nation.
In the case of the Asante people the metal was gold – mined from the earth, panned from rivers and definitely not concealed.
Sword ornament in the form of a lion, Ghana, Nsuta, Asante peoples, mid-20th century; cast gold and felt. Image: Dallas Museum of Art
In fact, this show glitters at every turn. Gold weapons. Gold finials on umbrellas and staffs. Gold pectoral discs. Gold rings and necklaces. Gold ornaments on sandals, helmets and crowns. A fly whisk with a gold handle. Gold weights. Gold dust.
The Asante (also known as the Ashanti) live in southern and central Ghana, as well as parts of the Ivory Coast and Togo. But thanks to the diaspora, you will find the Asante everywhere, including in Dallas.
Like other Akan peoples, Asante society is matrilineal. All inheritances and social roles are transmitted through the female line. Descent groups are formed by female connections, and these groups determine social and familial relations, to the extent that fathers may be less involved with their own children than with their sisters’ children.
The Asante capital, Kumasi, is situated in dense tropical rain forest, 120 miles from the Atlantic coast, And yet for centuries it was a center for international trade. The reason?
Gold, which Asante men, women and children panned for, and skilled miners laboriously extracted, often in tiny particles, from deep, narrow trenches they dug out with iron-tipped sticks.
Gold made the Akan region and the Asante people rich. Muslim traders came from across the Sahara to get it. And from the 15th century on, Europeans (Portuguese, Dutch, British) began to arrive by sea. They soon named the region “the Gold Coast.” In exchange for gold, they traded guns, textiles and alcohol, among other goods.
These goods, and especially the guns, helped the Asante expand their territories. They spread south to the coast and north into less fertile lands. By the second half of the 19th century, they controlled most of what is now Ghana. The Asante sometimes kept the neighboring peoples they overwhelmed as domestic slaves. More commonly, they sold them to Europeans, who came for gold but were soon also shipping slaves across the Atlantic in ever-increasing numbers – and with ever-expanding world-historical consequences.
Gold, and its associations with power, triggered all this, so the show’s title is apt. But gold permeated Asante culture well before it came to dominate its dealings with the outside world. It was used by Asante royalty, in abundant quantities, to impress the populace. It was integral, too, to the Asante origin myth. This involved the priest, Okomfo Anokye, causing a golden stool to descend from the heavens into the lap of the first Asante king, Osei Tutu. The golden stool became the symbol of the new nation. To signal compliance with the new order, the local chieftains buried their own stools.
What emerged, as Malcolm D. Macleod writes in his catalogue introduction, was “one of Africa’s most powerful, complex, and spectacular kingdoms, a state distinguished by its extremely hierarchical ethos, military might, and vast wealth.”
That hierarchical ethos finds expression in one of the most fundamental of thousands of sayings and proverbs that make up Asante oral lore: obi te obi ase. In English: “someone sits on someone else.”
“Someone sits on someone else” (there are days when it is hard to imagine a more succinct distillation of human affairs) is a phrase tailored to a conception of power that revolves around stools. Most of the show’s other objects – the finials, sword ornaments and gold weights, so often in the forms of animals – were made to be paired with their own proverbs.
“The mudfish grows fat for the benefit of the crocodile,” for example (another expression of naturalized hierarchy). Or: “The hen steps on her chicks not to hurt them, but to correct their behavior.” (The king must nurture and guide his subjects). Or: “One should never rub bottoms with a porcupine.” (Don’t get into a fight with someone who can hurt you more than you can hurt them – for example, the king.)
These proverbs don’t all aim at reinforcing royal power. Many turn out to be ambivalent, enigmatic, morally sophisticated and very much in tune with the idea that power implies responsibility.
Lenders to the exhibition include the British Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (which has its own superb collection of Asante gold on permanent display, a gift from Alfred C. Glassell Jr.). But the key object in the show belongs to the Dallas Museum of Art.
Finally, there is a series of spectacular textiles – royal kente cloths – for both men and women. Their immediately identifiable palette of green, red and yellow provides some visual relief from the preceding gleam and glitter – a great way to end an absorbing show.
Feature Image: Cleveland Museum of Art