Erotic Akan Goldweights

The Ghanaian lawyer J. B. Danquah once observed that "sex is not very important in the cultural expression of the Akan" (1956:5). This is borne out by a survey of Akan arts, for there is little that can be described as even mildly erotic. To this there is one notable exception: a small group of human-figure goldweights depicting a couple making love.

This subject is best known to seekers of Crowleiana through the tourist pieces that have been made in tens of thou- sands for many years. To judge by the avidity with which these are snapped up, they will soon be found in every junk shop from San Francisco to Singapore. They bear all the hallmarks of the genuine tourist piece: inferior workman- ship, total lack of artistry, and mass production of identical copies. I once spent an hour watching in horrid fascination as a small boy in the Asante casting village of Krofufurom deftly affixed the limbs and vital parts to a thousand identical wax models.

While these crude modern castings are intended to cater to the non-African taste, it was not exclusively from the tourist trade that they took their inspiration. They have antecedents in traditional Akan art, being derived from a small and little-known group of genuine Akan goldweights that depict the sexual theme. These original "erotic weights" are exceedingly rare. Over the last four- teen years I have seen only five examples among 120,000 weights, and I was perhaps fortunate. Two leading collectors, who between them have seen around 250,000 weights in the last 25 years, each possess only a single specimen. Since one estimate has put the total number of existing Akan goldweights at around 3,000,000 (Garrard 1980:325), the full corpus of genuine "erotic weights" may be less than a hundred.

Three particularly fine examples of the genre are here published, two of them for the first time. A survey of the literature readily to hand turns up eight others (together with a few fakes and imitations), bringing the total to eleven. Three or four more are known to me from un- published collections, and it is to be hoped that others will eventually be identified and published.

Of the eleven published examples, three unmistakably belong to the earliest phase of figurative goldweight production, which I have dated elsewhere to the 17th century (Garrard 1980:307). The bold and powerful forms of these weights, with their disregard for realism and avoidance of fussy detail, are characteristic of Early Period pieces. One be- longs to a collector in Schleswig- Holstein and has been published by Schidler (1973, pl. 204). The other two, evidently by a single hand, were exhibited a few years ago, one in Philadelphia (The Art of Goldweights 1977:61) and the other in Amsterdam (Leyten 1979, pl. 23). These Early Period weights depict the couple sitting upright and face to face with the woman astride the man. The Philadelphia specimen shows arms and legs interlaced, while in the Amsterdam weight one figure has its hands on the shoulders of the other, who in turn holds the first figure by the waist. The artist responsible for both weights conceived the bodies not as rounded forms but as rectangular box-like shapes with sharp edges; to these are affixed boneless limbs that bend like spaghetti and are supplied with neither fingers nor toes. Sexual characteristics are not emphasized, and this seems to have led to the Philadelphia weight being wrongly identified as two men wrestling (The Art of Goldweights 1977:61).

All other published examples of the sexual theme belong to the 18th and 19th centuries, the Late Period of goldweight production. One from the Anspach collection shows the man standing, carrying the woman who clings to his shoulders (Cole & Ross 1977, fig. 165). Another, from the Philadelphia catalogue, depicts the woman supine and the man squatting over her in an upright position; a third figure (apparently an intruder on the scene) stands behind the man, its right hand raised to its mouth in the Akan gesture of astonishment and perplexity (The Art of Goldweights 1977:62). Two of these figures, and possibly the third, have the unusual rectangular bodies noted above, though the weight seems to be more recent than those from Philadelphia and Amsterdam.

Two other weights show the man up- right and the woman horizontal. One of these, from the Krieg collection, is in 19th-century Asante style (Cole & Ross 1977, fig. 160). The other is a Baule piece in which the woman is supported by a headrest or neckrest (Rachewiltz 1964: 102, upper pl.).

Menzel has published another example from the collection of the Museum fir Valkerkunde, Berlin (1968, no. 882). This depicts a couple lying side by side with their arms crossed, the man with one leg on the woman's thigh. The weight is made from a white metal and is in the style of 19th-century Kumasi. It was collected by Pamplin-Green in the 1890s and passed to the museum in 1901. Two weights illustrated by Boris de Rachewiltz may not depict a sexual theme (1964: 102, lower pl., 103). One appears to represent a pregnant woman in childbirth; the other is probably not a "sexual rite," as Rachewiltz believed, but three figures mourning over a dead body. Another remarkable casting published by Rawson shows what may be described as the "wheelbarrow position" (1973, pl. 174). He labels it as an Asante piece of the mid-19th century; in fact it is a modern Baule fake, and the pose is untraditional.

 

Erotic Akan Goldweights 18th century
Figure -1- Akan erotic goldweight
18the century, 5.4cm.

 

Of the three "erotic weights" now published, one is a superb old example (Fig. 1). Its thick, dark green patina suggests that it may have been a burial piece. It depicts a couple sitting upright face to face, with their hands on each other's shoulders and the woman's legs around the man's waist. Hairstyles are shown in remarkable detail. The man has ten tufts of hair and the woman eight tufts and four spiral coils. Facial features are carefully rendered in full, as is the sexual equipment of both parties. The woman has breasts (omitted on some other weights), waist beads, and three sets of scarifications on her abdomen, spinal column and waist. Even the extremities are shown-four fingers on each hand and three toes on each foot. The bodies are stiff, rectangular boxes, like those of the Philadelphia and Amsterdam weights described earlier. The present piece is evidently in the same tradition, though from its complexity, greater realism, and careful attention to detail it cannot be described as an Early Period weight. It is likely to date from the 18th century, perhaps from the first half, and may have been produced by a descendant or successor of the artist who made the two earlier weights. As a fully developed example of the style it is a sculptural masterpiece, no less successful than the bolder and simpler forms of the previous century.


  • 17-3-2011

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