From the scales of a 19th-century Asante kingdom chief to a greasy spoon café in Peckham in 2010 is a remarkable journey for a brass goldweight to make. Measuring 2cm x 1.5cm x 1cm, the rectangular cuboid has an abstract pattern that vaguely suggests the sacred Asante Stool. It is embellished with few other decorative qualities. Yet imbued within the scarred metal and finger-worn edges is a story: the power of an Asante chief, decades of turbulent war with the British, a journey through the scrubland of Ghana, a flight to England and, most recently, a trip to a café in Peckham.
Partly responsible for the voyage of the artefact is Tom Phillips, a distinguished painter, sculptor, composer, author and avid Ghanaian goldweight collector. Speaking a day before travelling to Berlin to launch his book African Goldweights, he explains the attraction of the weights.
“I think they are beautiful objects,” he enthuses over a plate of liver, chips and beans. “They are incredibly delicate, and made using a forgotten method with beeswax. You try making them – it is very complicated”.
Although the one now in my hand has a relatively simple design, the weights that were used to weigh gold-dust currency between the 15th and 19th centuries in the Asante Kingdom (and among other parts of the Akan entholinguistic group) come in a vast variety of different styles.
The Asante region might have been restricted to West Africa, but a clear Muslim influence can be seen on early designs from the 16th century. The individual stylings of each piece, however, are primarily down to the whim of the goldsmith whose job it was to make the goldweights out of brass. As we walk around Tom’s studio, hundreds of weights on every mantelpiece and flat surface can be seen depicting birds, beetles, tortoises, shells, fish, drums and human figures eating, drinking, playing musical instruments, hunting and, yes, weighing out gold. And while many are representative motifs, or illustrative of proverbs, many of them are decorated with defined patterns. “It is abstract art, made three or four hundred years ago,” Phillips points out.
Yet for centuries, ethnologists, anthropologists and art-collecting Europeans all but ignored these beautiful objects. The weights were not used for rituals, had no religious significance other than when the chiefs were displaying their wealth, and their ubiquity meant few collectors were interested. Their significance is huge, however. “Asante goldweights are one of the only secular pieces of old African art that exist,” Phillips argues.
The Asante (a spelling generally preferred over Ashanti) are an ethnic group from modern Ghana, and part of the West African Akan ethnolinguistic group. It was the Asante who built up one of the largest and most powerful kingdoms in West Africa, with Kumasi as its capital. During the 1670s, when powerful leader Osei Tutu brought together a federation of clans – many of which were working with Europeans to expand the slave trade – a confederacy was created.
The kingdom soon expanded into a domain that spanned current-day Ghana and Ivory Coast, largely with the aim of controlling the gold trade and trading with the Europeans. By 1750, the Asante kingdom was around 100,000 square miles (258,000 square kilometres), slightly larger than Ghana today, and had a population of between two and three million. In the 19th century, British traders and government colonialists aimed to demolish it. There were five main conflicts over the century, with the final confrontation now known as the War of the Golden Stool.
The legend of the Golden Stool – a motif that can be seen across Ghana, not least on the national flag and in the design of the remarkable government building – is at the heart of Asante culture. It is said that the Golden Stool, sika dwa in Akan, descended from heaven and landed in the lap of Osei Tutu, thus coming to symbolise the strength of the Asante people. The golden stool is still said to exist, although its whereabouts remain unknown since Sir Frederick Hodgson, Governor of the Gold Coast, demanded to sit on it in 1900, thus starting the war – won by the British by 1902 – which eventually incorporated the Asante territories into the Gold Coast.
It was around this time that the goldweights ceased to be used for their stated purpose – gold dust, rare after the British incursion, stopped being the Asante currency. However, according to Phillips, the goldweights still retained some of their local prestige even into the 20th century.
“It would not be uncommon, as the Asante began to flourish as a nation in the early 18th century, for the head of a family to have a few dozen weights at least,” he writes in African Goldweights. “This in part accounts for the huge number that have survived. Another factor was their role as heirlooms and the consequent care with which they were kept even long after they ceased to be of use for trading.”
Today, many of the goldweights are in the hands of collectors and specialised dealers, in Europe as well as in Ghana. Seeking out authentic goldweights in Ghana is still possible, although finding the right person can take a considerable amount of patience and a lot of asking around in markets such as the Art Centre. And if you’re fortunate enough to come across any genuine articles, spend a moment in appreciation – in historical terms, they’re worth their weight in gold.
Tom's book African Goldweights: Miniature Sculptures from Ghana 1400-1900 is available now on Amazon and other online retailers. (Hansjorg Mayer ISBN-10: 0500976961 ISBN-13: 978-0500976968)
See Ghana's essential cultural sites
A national park erected in memory of Osagyefo (the Messiah) Doctor Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana’s first president and one of its founding fathers. Built on a former British polo field, it was the point where Nkrumah declared independence in 1957. The park consists of five acres of land and holds a museum tracing Nkrumah’s life. There are many personal items on display, but the centrepiece is the mausoleum, Nkrumah and his wife’s final resting place. Tours in English can be taken. Kwame Nkrumah is an essential part of Ghana’s history and a good half-hour here will fill you in on most of the details. Events are held on Independence Anniversary celebrations on 6 March and the Celebration of Emancipation Day on 1 August.
The Nubuke Foundation has been in this, its first permanent location, since 2009. In this pleasant building in East Legon is one of the most important art galleries in the city, dedicated to Ghanaian visual art, culture and heritage. It was set up to provide an artistic space for Ghanaian artists (often in collaboration with artists from other countries) and show off their talents. It has also a philanthropic aim to support artisans around the country. One successful project was with kente cloth weavers in Tsiame, in the Volta Region, teaching them how to make more commercially appealing cloth (tableware and bedding for example) as well as improving techniques such as colour fastening. The results, available at its shop, are beautiful pieces of work (between GH¢100-600 for two yards). Its vibrant cultural offering includes poetry evenings, Saturday workshops, art walks, film and music. Keep an eye on the website for details.
The National Museum is home to some of Ghana’s most absorbing historical finds. The museum, opened by the Duchess of Kent in 1957, gives an opportunity to travel through the country’s history from both an archaeological and ethnographic perspective. Much of the display is dedicated to indigenous art and crafts: there are regalia, musical instruments and the all-important royal Asante stools. Other displays include Asante gold weights, currency, instruments, textiles and leatherwork. Slighty hidden away is the chair used in Kwame Nkrumah’s inauguration and the chair of the last British governor, rescued from Christianborg Castle. An exhibition about the slave trade is essential viewing, outlining the era’s brutal history, and showing poignant relics such as shackles. There’s also a gallery with pieces by Ghanaian artists.
Half an hour’s drive from Cape Coast, Kakum National Park’s verdant slice of semi-deciduous rainforest offers a fresh green alternative to the bustling cities and stifling heat of the coast (033 21 302 265, www.kakumnationalpark.info, 8am-4pm). The 607 square kilometres (234 square miles) of protected rainforest are home to an assortment of wild residents, including forest elephants, giant hogs, flying squirrels, leopards and various species of monkey. However, with much of the elusive wildlife buried deep in the forest’s flora, there’s little chance of seeing anything more than a millipede or two unless spending a night on an organised camping trip. For those content with gazing at the greenery to a soundtrack of birdcalls, try the canopy walk (US$9). Elevated 40 metres above the forest floor, the 350-metre-long wooden walkway and various viewing platforms offer spectacular, if vertiginous, views of the park, although it is unlikely much wildlife will be seen. There is a simple but informative visitors’ centre, a café and gift shop administered by the Ghana Heritage Conservation Trust.
With modernist and Soviet- influenced lines, the stands around Independence Square can seat 30,000 people. The vast area, built under Kwame Nkrumah, is designed for huge events and military marches, but it is usually empty except for a few soldiers sheltering from the sun. The only times the square comes alive are at commercial events such as concerts and fashion shows, which take place throughout the year. Even if there’s not much happening it’s worth wandering around just to marvel at the sheer audacity of it all.The Independence Arch, at the centre of the busy roundabout, is also known as Black Star Square, thanks to the motif that dominates the arch. The sculpture is a nod to Ghana’s acclaim as the ‘Black Star of Africa’: it was an inspiration to other African countries vying for independence and the Flame of African Liberation, lit by Nkrumah, still burns strongly nearby. Please note that there are (seemingly unwritten) laws about taking photographs and we strongly suggest that you don’t take photographs of any part ofthe area.
This colonial-era lighthouse was built in the 1930s. It’s not a tourist attraction in the usual sense – no gift shops or ticket offices here – but stray within twenty metres and you’ll inevitably be accosted by a ‘guide’ offering to take you to the top for a few cedi (usually around GH¢5 each). If you’re willing to part with the cash, there’s a good panoramic view from the top of the (possibly not overly safe) spiral staircase.
An hour or so out of Accra is Kokrobite. This small beach town has become a destination for sun seekers and pleasure seekers. The long-established Big Milly’s has become somewhat of a backpackers classic – a laid back hostel with an open bar. Nearby is Bah’doosh, an Australian-owned bar and restaurant where there always seems to be someone strumming a guitar (Bob Marley is a favourite). But the beach is the main attraction – the finest near Accra.
This was the first cocoa farm in This was the first cocoa farm in Ghana and the birthplace of Ghana’s burgeoning cocoa industry. The original seedlings were brought from Fernando Po Island just off the coast of Equatorial Guinea by Tetteh Quarshie himself in 1879. Three original trees remain. There’s little to see (don’t expect a visitor centre or shop), but a guide will take you around the plantation for a few cedi – get the price first. Contact the caretaker at the Mampong Chief’s Palace for entry.
First-time visitors pulling up to Bojo Beach’s powdery sands are oft taken aback that this easily accessed beach just 25 minutes’ drive from the frantically beating and dusty heart of Accra feels more like a remote stretch of the Caribbean. A meander through a couple of Accra’s sprawling suburbs and down a bumpy track or two is all it takes to reach this wide expanse at Bortianor, just off the Kokrobite Road. After paying an 8ghc entrance fee, beachgoers hop into little boats that glide across a small and flat stretch of water to Bojo’s gleaming strip of sugar-white sand. Thatched umbrellas stud the shoreline, looking out over the area’s characteristically crashing waves. Rustic to say the least, Bojo is a delightfully simplistic set up of sand, water and seating. The current here is a powerful one, however – there are lifeguards, but it is advised that only good swimmers go out of their depth in the hardy surf. But what appeals compared with the overall feel of city-front Labadi, is Bojo is well-maintained, clean, and the urban hubbub seems eons away. A large thatched shack is the only refreshment option, serving up average but edible snacks and a good selection of chilled drinks. During the week, and on the rare cooler day, the beach is a wonderfully tranquil haven, with oodles of space. Weekends and holidays tend to see a transformation into a bustling hive of activity, with locals and visitors alike enjoying a festive atmosphere, and participating in the likes of jet sk
You’ll most likely be aware of Cape Coast Castle already (Barack and Michelle Obama visited in 2009 to much fanfare), as it was here that some of the worst atrocities of the slave trade era were committed. The city was founded by the Portuguese in the 15th century, and the solid white bulk of the castle acted first as a fortified base for overseeing the export of gold and other goods before ‘market forces’ initiated a move into human trafficking. A tour of the site today makes for a harrowing, but undeniably salutary, visit. Thousands upon thousands of West African men and women were imprisoned within the castle’s scratched dungeon walls – in truly horrific conditions – before passing the ‘Door of No Return’ and being shipped off to the Americas, the majority of them not surviving to reach their final destination. To establish a clearer understanding of the crushing reality of the period, the 45-minute guided tour (included in the ticket price) comes highly recommended. There’s also a museum on site. The Castle is now listed as a World Heritage Site, and gazing down today from its old ramparts at the late-afternoon hubbub of fishermen and red-dust footballers, it’s hard not to be stirred by the human cost of its past.