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Object of the Week: Figurative Weight (abrammuo)

Expanded vaccine eligibility—and this amazing spring weather—is making the prospect of gathering with friends and family a palpable reality. As I imagine and anticipate what these reunions will look and feel like, an Asante work currently on view in the galleries comes to mind: a figurative weight (abrammuo) in the form of two men meeting.

Vast quantities of gold were traded in the Asante empire from 1400 to 1900, and these copper alloy figures were used to balance scales when measuring gold dust. Each miniature sculpture has an attendant proverb, immediately transforming such “business dealings into daily exhibitions of eloquence” and “small-scale momentary exhibitions.”[1] In this case, the proverbial wisdom on offer is: “They have ended up like Amoako and Adu.” 

Who are these men? Amoako and Adu are two old friends who meet after years of being apart, having encountered their own share of misfortune along the way. Now poor, or as poor as they were when they last saw one another, the proverb is about wasted opportunity and, ultimately, the lasting endurance of friendship. Their dynamic, swaying posture offers a reflection of this life—full of ups and downs—but now their heads crane forward as they reconnect and share stories.

This has been a trying year, to say the absolute least, full of collective misfortune, trauma, and challenges—locally, nationally, and globally. But in these difficult times, the wit and wisdom of proverbs like that of the Asante might offer a long view, connecting our current moment to both the past and future. And when we reunite with our loved ones this spring and summer, hopefully we can revel in the important strength of our relationships—the ultimate currency.

– Elisabeth Smith, SAM Collections and Provenance Associate


[1] Pamela McClusky, Art from Africa: Long Steps Never Broke a Back (Seattle: Seattle Art Museum with Princeton University Press, 2002), 79.
Image: Figurative Weight (abrammuo): Men Meeting, Ghanaian, copper alloy, 1 3/8 x 1 1/16 x 13/16 in., Gift of Katherine White and the Boeing Company, 81.17.361

Object of the Week: Soul Washer’s Disc

The intricate radiating pattern of this golden pendant refers not only to the sun, but evokes its warmth and life-giving properties as well. Such discs are known as akrafokonmu, and are prized emblems of Asante leadership, worn by rulers, queen mothers, and soul washers—or akrafo—who conduct ceremonies that purify leaders’ souls.

A precious metal, gold is considered an earthly counterpart to the sun, the physical manifestation of life force (kra). In addition to gold’s spiritual properties, for centuries it has been an expression of royal status, wealth, and trading power for the Asante people.

Such protective emblems are important for members of the royal family or court. Individuals selected as akrafo are young women and men who are born on the same day of the week as the king, and assist in rites of purification and renewal. Gold discs such as this one are suspended over the akrafos’ chests by necklace cords made of various fibers.

Currently on view in Lessons from the Institute of Empathy, this akrafokonmu finds itself in the company of other Asante gold adornment—rings, bracelets, necklaces, and beads. Grouped together, they highlight the beautiful metalwork and material culture of the Asante, as well as the vital role speech and proverbs play therein.

Though the Inauguration is firmly an American ceremony—replete with its own lexicon and symbols, important sartorial statements and homages—I couldn’t help but think of this soul washer’s disc—itself an emblem of historic Asante ceremonies and traditions—and the immense power that such tokens hold for cultures around the world.

– Elisabeth Smith, SAM Collections & Provenance Associate

Image: Soul Washer’s disc (akrafokonmu), 20th century, Ghanaian, gold wash and silver core, diameter: 3 5/16 in., Gift of Katherine White and the Boeing Company, 81.17.1685

Object of the Week: Atifofoe Susuavor Adanudo

The beauty of this Ghanaian textile lies not only in its striking colors and bold patterning, but in its deeper message of unity. Made with strips of woven cloth crafted by over twenty Ewe weavers, this vibrant adanudo (which translates roughly as “skilled or wise cloth”) highlights the beauty that can be found in bringing together unique artistic voices and, ultimately, difference.

Kente cloth, which originated in the Asante region of Ghana, is today an iconic and widely-produced textile, but it is important to remember that it initially functioned in a royal and ceremonial context within the Asante kingdom. The Ewe, like their Asante neighbors, have a rich textile tradition, and one that relies on a style of horizontal loom-weaving similar to that of Kente cloth. However, unlike the Asante, the Ewe never united to form an autocratic government; this, among other things, resulted in a distinct brand of creative autonomy. Free from the strict designs that would otherwise be determined by a royal court, Ewe weavers—regardless of their region—have been able to explore their own personal style and visual language.

With its high-keyed color palate and dazzling contrasts between warp and weft (a hallmark of such Kente textiles), this adanudo—titled Atifofoe Susuavor Adanudo (A Cloth of Multiple Designs and Much Skill—Even Difference Can Be Unified)—is replete with intricate geometric patterning and inlaid motifs. The creativity and idiosyncrasies inherent in this piece are again a testament to the liberties Ewe artists can take, not to mention their skill. This piece in particular also has an especially interesting backstory: It was created in 2004 by a community of Ewe artists working together with Gilbert “Bobbo” Ahiagble, who was born into a family of master weavers of Ewe Kente cloth. Led by Ahiagble, twenty four artists created and contributed to this adanudo, chosen by Ahiagble for the Seattle Art Museum as an exemplar work from his community and workshop. Indeed, the piece is a feast for the eyes and an amazing display of craftsmanship on a community-wide level.

The syncopated patterning and visual rhythm of Atifofoe Susuavor Adanudo might be composed of seemingly disparate and irreconcilable elements, but, literally woven together, the piece illustrates the power of diversity and the strength to be gained by working together. The whole really is greater than the sum of its parts.

– Elisabeth Smith, Collections Coordinator

Image: Atifofoe Susuavor Adanudo “A cloth of multiple designs and much skill – even difference can be unified”, 2004, Ghanaian, cotton, 106 x 85 1/4 in., African Art Purchase Fund, in honor of the 75th Anniversary of the Seattle Art Museum, 2005.29 © Gilbert Bobbo Ahiagble

Object of the Week: Lion Stool

There is an old Asante saying, “Only the lion drinks from the palm-wine pot of the leopard.”

The phrase has a lot of charm for those who come to it unaware of the story and significance behind it. You might tuck it away for a moment when you want to say something with gravity to make everyone around you feel impressed and a bit confused.

And then it also holds wisdom for us when we become one of the initiated. During the 20th century in Ghana, lions overtook leopards as the main symbol of strength and leadership. They had overtaking to do because lions aren’t native to Ghana; they seem to have appeared, with many other alien things, during the Colonial era. Before lions were known in the region, the leopard garnered similar respect, filling a symbolic role and signifying strength, power, and importance. The old king was ousted when a stronger one arrived. Even the leopard became submissive to the lion, allowing him to lap at the proverbial palm-wine pot.

The lessons are there for all of us. No matter how high we rise, there’s likely someone higher. Leaders shouldn’t be too comfortable. There’s another one ready to take their place.

Lions commad respect.

SAM’s Ghanaian Lion Stool (after 1957) gives a visual form to the lion’s rise to power in the country where it was made. In the painted wood sculpture, the lion forms the base, imparting authority to whoever would sit there.

The stool is an intriguing combination of foreign and native parts. The lion, an outsider, is joined to the stool, an entrenched, deeply significant part of Asante culture. For the Asante, the stool is the primary vehicle for communicating the idea of leadership. Bright yellow and silver enamel paint gives the stool an eye-catching presence. A key, an object that here and all over the world represents access, hangs on the side of the lion, where it adds to the impression of power and wealth. The stool isn’t something that strikes me as characteristically African in aesthetic, and that is another indication that its meaning is more global, and more accessible, than we first imagine.

This is one of art’s great gifts: To connect us with people and places, times and traditions that would otherwise remain totally unfamiliar and inaccessible to us. On display in SAM’s 4th-floor galleries, the Ghanaian Lion Stool confronts most of its viewers with something unfamiliar, but it rewards those who care enough to investigate.

—Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

Images
1. Ghanaian, Lion Stool, after 1957, wood, paint, 16 9/16 x 20 13/16 x 11 7/8 in. Gift of Katherine White and the Boeing Company, 81.17.545.
2. Lions command respect.