Figurative Weight (abrammuo): Sankofa Bird

Photo: Paul Macapia

Figurative Weight (abrammuo): Sankofa Bird

A unique way of doing business inspired miniature sculpture among the Asante. Gold dust and nuggets were placed on scales, and brass figures were used to balance and measure their weight. Trading gold became an event that mixed exhibitions of tiny sculptures with eloquent sayings. Each weight carries a message that can help steer conversation and ignite reflection. To articulate those messages, the museum enlisted a musician who is known for his careful use of words--someone who grew up in the Asante royal court, where brilliant and imaginative public speaking was a requisite skill. With his guidance, we know that this bird, which is known as Sankofa, often signifies a saying as simple as "If it falls behind you, pick it up," but there are more nuanced readings of the bird's messages to come.
Cast brass (cire perdue)
1 3/8 x 11/16 x 1 3/8 in. (3.5 x 1.8 x 3.5 cm)
Gift of Katherine White and the Boeing Company
Provenance: [Julius Carlebach Gallery, New York]; purchased from gallery by Katherine White, Apr. 23, 1961
Photo: Paul Macapia
Now on view at the Seattle Art Museum

The art of oratory is in West Africa carried to a remarkable pitch of perfection.

R.A. Freeman, 1888, Journey to Ashantee

What a Handful of Rings Can Say

Ring, n.d., Ghanaian, Asante, 81.17.406
On just one hand, an Asante ruler is able to convey many concepts. Five rings from the museum's collection would let him express commitment, forcefulness, suspicions, compassion and discipline.

"If you want to grow something for me, plant groundnuts, not corn."
(A wish for a permanent relationship: groundnuts remain in the soil once planted, whereas corn is easily uprooted and destroyed.)
Ring: Pod, n.d., African, Asante, Ghanaian, 81.17.400
"Not all pepper ripens at the same time." (You shouldn't expect success at the same time. Some are slow beginners.)
Ring: Porcupine, n.d., African, Asante, Ghanaian, 81.17.401
"The grub: it does not talk, but it breathes." (A stranger's character is not easily known.) Or "Kill a thousand and a thousand will come." (Remove one porcupine quill and another will fill in; the unified Asante are always armed and ready for action.)
Ring, n.d., Ghanaian, Asante, 81.17.1684
"Tortoise, you are suffering in your shell." (However secure a person seems, he has hidden troubles.)
Ring: Wisdom Ring, n.d., Ghanaian, Asante, 81.17.399
"If you are weaving and the thread gets tangled, use both hands to untie it." (Even the wise man needs another's advice to solve a problem.)

Textile Rhetoric

Kente Cloth: (Mmeeda, "something that has not happened before"), n.d., African, Asante, Ghanaian, 81.17.434
Designs embedded in this cloth give it the name Mmeeda: "Something that has not happened before." The cloth received international recognition when Kwame Nkrumah wore it on February 12, 1951, the day he was released from a one-year prison term for sedition against the colonial government. Wearing an mmeeda cloth was an omen for the next decade of Nkrumah's career, as he became Ghana's first president in 1960 and later founded the Organization of African Unity, or OAU.
Cloth, n.d., African, 99.56.25
Women in West Africa are sometimes able to use cloth to silently project their concerns. Printed cloths in Ghana might be given names like "a bunch of bananas," or convey proverbs such as "Death's ladder is not the monopoly of one man" (We shall all die one day). A cloth known as "Precious beads are silent" alludes to the design of beadlike objects being strung together. Beads vary in quality: certain types are more solid, heavier and less noisy. The proverb implies that the woman of higher character is one who is reticent and not fond of empty talk.

Doing Business With Metaphors

Figurative Weight (abrammuo): Sankofa Bird, n.d., African, Asante, Ghanaian, 81.17.397
This sequence of gold weights suggests a range of proverbs:

"Pick it up if it falls behind." (Whatever mistakes one has made in the past can be corrected.)

"Go back and pick." (san, return; ko, go; fa, pick. Any aspect of culture that doesn't draw from the past to replenish the present and cast a shadow into the future will die.)

"When it lies behind you, take it" (Use the wisdom of the past.)
Figurative Weight (abrammuo): Men Meeting, n.d., African, Asante, Ghanaian, 81.17.361
"They have ended up like Amoako and Adu." (Amoako and Adu were two men who parted in their youth and in old age met again to find that they were as poor as when they started but still had a friendship.)
Figurative Weight (abrammuo): Birds, n.d., African, Asante, Ghanaian, 81.17.362
 "The woodpeckers hope the silk-cotton tree will die." (If the tree dies, grubs will fill the rotting wood and give the woodpeckers more food; one man's downfall is another man's gain.)
Photo: Paul Macapia
Gold Weight: Shield, n.d., Akan, 81.17.370
"Though the covering of the shield wears out, its framework still remains." (Although the head of the family may die, the family endures.)
Figurative Weight: Leopard, n.d., African, Asante, Ghanaian, 81.17.390
"When the rain falls on the leopard it wets the spots on his skin but does not wash them off." (A man's nature is not changed by circumstances.)

Seeing and Hearing Asante Art

Asante art encourages us to see wisdom in the ordinary. A bird, peanut, shield, tortoise and porcupine are a sampling of the common subjects whose traits inspire proverbs. For an Asante, vivid language and a repertoire of effective proverbs are an expected part of public speech. To decipher the proverbs represented in the works in the museum's collection, the museum was advised by Daniel "Koo Nimo" Amponsah. As a young man, Koo Nimo was raised in the palace of the Asantehene (ruler) of the Asante and was "irradiated with tradition." He listened to courtly language and eventually became a great musical innovator. His description of a sequence of rings and the proverbs they reflect exemplifies how these objects leave room for ambiguity and shows the slight shifts in meaning that a skilled orator can adapt to suit each occasion.

A distinctive aspect of Asante proverbs is their tendency to feature specific imagery. While English proverbs are often statements of moral truths, such as "Honesty is the best policy" or "A friend in need is a friend indeed," Asante proverbs often have a visual reference, as you can see in the following examples of weights and rings.
Daniel "Koo Nimo" Amponsah, advisor to the Seattle Art Museum
© Seattle Art Museum


Interview and performance with Daniel "Koo Nimo" Amponsah


Exhibition HistoryCleveland, Ohio, Cleveland Museum of Art, African Tribal Images: The Katherine White Reswick Collection, July 10 - Sept. 1, 1968 (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, University of Pennsylvania Museum, Oct. 10 - Dec. 1, 1968). Text by William Fagg. Cat. no. 105.

Seattle, Washington, Seattle Art Museum, Art from Africa: Long Steps Never Broke a Back, Feb. 7 - May 19, 2002 (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Oct. 2, 2004 - Jan. 2, 2005; Hartford, Connecticut, Wadsworth Atheneum, Feb. 12 - June 19, 2005; Cincinnati, Ohio, Cincinnati Art Museum, Oct. 8, 2005 - Jan. 1, 2006; Nashville, Tennessee, Frist Center for the Visual Arts, Jan. 27 - Apr. 30, 2006 [as African Art, African Voices: Long Steps Never Broke a Back]). Text by Pamela McClusky. No cat. no., pp. 81-82, reproduced pl. 44.

Seattle, Washington, Seattle Art Museum, Lessons from the Institute of Empathy, Mar. 31, 2018 - ongoing.
Published ReferencesAppiah, Kwame Anthony, The Politics of Culture The Politics of Identity, Institute for Contemporary Culture at the ROM, pp.45, 2008, Royal Ontario Museum

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