Although often identified with the Asante, the most numerous and best known of the Akan peoples, weights for measuring gold dust were made and used throughout Ghana and Côte d'Ivoire. For more than five centuries, from about 1400 to 1900, Akan smiths cast weights of immense diversity. Their small size made them portable and easy to trade. Each weight was cast individually in the lost-wax method. What resulted was a unique piece, but one that had to be a specific weight to function. The shape or figure of a weight did not correspond to a set unit of measure: a porcupine in one set could equal an antelope in another, or a geometric form in a third. For important transactions, gold dust was placed on one side of a small, handheld balance scale, a weight on the other. Each party to the dealing verified the amount of gold dust using his or her own weights.
Some figurative weights evoke well-known Akan proverbs, and more than one proverb may apply. This is perhaps particularly true of animal weights. This weight depicting a porcupine (kotoko) relates to a proverb of the Anyi of Côte d'Ivoire in which the porcupine displays greater responsibility than his dependent relative, the hedgehog. The porcupine is cast in the role of the senior, powerful character because of its quills. Its many quills were also taken as a symbol of the Asante kingdom and its large, well-equipped army, as demonstrated in the sayings "Asante kotoko kill thousands and thousands more will come," an expression relating to the size and courage of the army, or "who dares to attack the porcupine which has so many spikes."
Most weights, however, are not commissioned to make a point or tell a story. They are not usually sent as messages, with the exception of an occasion on which an Asante king once dispatched a large weight in the form of a porcupine to indicate the size of a fine owed by a guilty individual. Weights may act as display pieces implying wealth in both the size of individual weights and the number owned.
Figurative weight in the form of a porcupine with coffee bean eyes and open, slit mouth.
Philip L. Ravenhill, collected in Côte d'Ivoire, 1976-1982 to 1996
Visionary: Viewpoints on Africa's Arts, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., November 4, 2017-ongoing
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