The dazzling works presented here were made primarily by Akan artists living in Ghana and the neighboring Côte d'Ivoire. Bordering the Atlantic Ocean, the gold-rich forest region of what is now Ghana was once known as the Gold Coast. While these works of art date to the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, their history is linked to that of the West African empires that rose to power more than 1000 years before. The modern nation Ghana is named after the Empire of Ghana founded by the eighth century.
The Rise of the Akan States
Akan states developed toward the beginning of the fifteenth century stimulated by the demand for gold on the world market. By 1482, Europeans began to establish trading forts in coastal Akan areas. Akan states exchanged gold for slaves to clear the forest and mine or pan for more gold. They traded gold and kola nuts to the north for cotton, metal ware, and leather goods. They traded gold, ivory, and slaves to Europeans on the coast for firearms, cloth, liquor, and copper and brassware. By about 1500, Akan peoples exported more than 1000 pounds of gold each year. During the eighteenth century, more than 500,000 slaves were taken from the region and sent mostly to the Americas.
As gold trade routes shifted from the Sahara to the coast, Akan royal courts became the most splendid in Africa. The Asante confederacy was formed at the end of the seventeenth century. Legend says that Osei Tutu I founded the kingdom when his chief priest Anokye summoned a solid gold stool down from the sky. It gently landed on Osei Tutu's knees, identifying him as the first asantehene, or king of the Asante. After this miraculous event, the Golden Stool became a sacred symbol of the unity of the Asante nation, its spirit, and its soul.
In 1896, the British sent Asantehene Prempeh I into exile and the British Governor Sir Frederick Hodgson demanded that the Golden Stool be turned over to him. The queen mother of Edweso state Nana Yaa Asantewa led an unsuccessful war of resistance and she was also sent into exile. The Asante still honor her as a great leader in praise songs: "Yaa Asantewa, the warrior woman who carries a gun and a sword of state in battle." Prempeh I was released in 1924 and by 1933 the Asante confederacy was restored. On March 6, 1957, Ghana became the first sub-Saharan African nation to regain its independence.