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VOL. 127 | NO. 34 | Monday, February 20, 2012

Akan Weights Land In Memphis

JONATHAN DEVIN | Special to The Memphis News

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One of the biggest art exhibitions to come to the Metal Museum is large in significance even if the individual pieces are tiny.

Tiny yet intricately designed copper alloy weights used by the Akan people of West Africa are on display at the Metal Museum through March 4. (Photo: Courtesy of Leila Hamdan)

“Weighed in the Balance: Akan Gold Weights,” on display through March 4, shows the history of the West African gold trade from the 1400s to the early 1700s through the developing artistry of functional objects.

“This is probably one if not the most interesting and exciting exhibitions that I’ve dealt with,” said Metal Museum collections manager/registrar Leila Hamdan, whose job it was to register and catalog each of the 500 pieces in the show, some of which are as small as a fingernail.

“To me it really vibrates and has a lot of history embedded in each object. Hand-me-down objects carry the memory of the previous owner. Each of these objects has that essence to me.”

The exhibit is on loan from The Canadian Museum of Making in Calgary, Alberta, a renowned repository of manufactured objects. The weights are chunks of copper alloy cast through one of two different methods into a particular shape and then used in a balancing scale to measure the weight of gold dust.

The Akan people, native to present day Ghana, were introduced to weights and scales by Islamic traders in the 1400s. Later they developed their own style of weights, becoming more and more ornate until British and French currencies took over the market.

Some of the earliest pieces are simple like a rectangular weight with a circular hole punched through the middle and modest etchings around the sides. More elaborate weights of that period resemble Xs or three-dimensional jacks. The Islamic weights, Hamdan said, were made more with function in mind.

But then the later pieces were clearly multi-functional and purposefully creative.

“(After the Islamic traders) you can see how the Akan people started developing their own style mostly through storytelling and metaphors about their beliefs,” Hamdan said.

Many are figures of animals and people, usually a king or person of authority, performing various life activities like one, a stick figure with an exaggerated round head bearing a sword. Another figure holds a bird, perhaps in a ceremonial rite. Another smokes a pipe and yet another loads a rifle with powder.

Weights were also cast as horns, bells, and drums which were symbols of communication since the instruments’ sounds mimicked the tonal Akan language.

The symbolism of animals is also reflected in a good many other weights like a series of leopard figures with serpentine bodies. According to an Akan story, the leopard never loses its spots even in the rain, so it was considered a symbol of character. Similarly, tortoises, also used in the weights, never knew when they were going to die according to stories, so they carried their coffins on their backs.

Hamdan’s personal favorite is a double-headed crocodile, essentially the figure of two crocodiles joined at the midsection. Crocodiles, she said, are notorious for fighting over food, but in this case, the crocodiles share a stomach and therefore must share.

Mudfish, cranes, antelopes, and monkeys are among the tiny menagerie as well, each bearing seemingly microscopic details. Some were made to double as game pieces or amulets worn around the neck to ward off sickness.

A handful of weight kits are on display as well, each coming complete with a hand-size, shovel-like scoop and a set of tiny spoon for moving gold dust to and from the scales and a cylindrical brass container with a conic lid, all heavily etched.

An ovoid kit was decorated by repousse – a method of hammering shapes into sheets of imported brass. In this case, a shallow arc like the curve of a fingernail was used to make wave-like designs around the perimeter of the lid. In the center, an area shaped like a bird has been left unadorned.

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