Hale Woodruff’s “Afro Emblems” and Ashanti Gold WeightsPosted: February 10, 2014
Hale Aspacio Woodruff (Cairo, Illinois, USA, 1900-1980) first grew interested in African art in the 1920s, when an art dealer gave him a German book on the subject. He couldn’t read the text but appreciated studying the pictures; on a trip to Europe some years later he bought African sculpture for his own personal inspiration. For “Afro Emblems”, Woodruff divided his canvas into rough rectangles, filling each shape with an emblem inspired by Ashanti or Akan gold weights. [ See paragraph below. ] Woodruff’s bold black outlines and dashes of colour stand out from the blue background, creating an abstract African-influenced pattern.
Ashanti or Akan Gold Weights
Natural gold resources in the dense forests of southern Ghana brought wealth and influence to the Ashanti (Asante) people. Wealth increased by transporting gold to North Africa via trade routes across the Sahara Desert. In the 15th and 16th centuries this gold attracted other traders, from the great Songhay Empire (in today’s Republic of Mali), from the Hausa cities of northern Nigeria and from Europe. European interest in the region, initially in gold and then in enslaved Africans, brought about great changes, not least the creation of the British Gold Coast Colony in the 19th century. (In 1959, this “Colony” de-Colonized, becoming the modern West-African nation of Ghana.)
Asante State had grown out of a group of smaller states to become a centralized hierarchical kingdom. By the early 1700s the Asante State’s increased power meant it was able to displace the former dominant state, Denkyira, which had, through conquest, controlled major trade routes to the Atlantic coast as well as some of the richest gold mines. Once the Asante became dominant in this region, both gold and slaves passed through its state capital, Kumasi.
Gold was central to Asante art and belief. Gold entered the Asante court via tribute or war and was fashioned into jewellery and ceremonial objects there by artisans from conquered territories. The court’s power was further demonstrated through its regulation of the regional gold trade. Everyone involved in trade and commerce owned, or had access to, a set of weights and scales. The weights, produced in brass, bronze or copper (usually by the ‘lost wax’ process), corresponded to a standardized weight system derived from North African / Islamic, Dutch and Portuguese precedents. Since each weight had a known measurement, merchants too employed them for secure, fair-trade arrangements with one another. Other gold-trade equipment included shovels for scooping up gold dust, spoons for lifting gold dust from the shovel and putting it on the scales and boxes for storing gold dust.
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