Although mention of West African art usually conjures up images of bronze casting and wood carving, artisans in this region also have a long tradition of working with a far more precious material: gold. That's why early European explorers referred to the whole area as the Gold Coast.
Glittering proof of their goldsmithing savvy is easily had by walking through a new exhibit at the Baltimore Museum of Art, "Gold of Africa: Jewelry and Ornaments From Ghana, Cote d'Ivoire, Mali and Senegal." This touring show was organized by the Barbier-Mueller Museum in Geneva, Switzerland, from its collection.
The various tribes surveyed by the show have distinctive ways of working -- and wearing -- all that gold, but there is one shared fashion statement: If you've got the gold, flaunt it. Not just royalty wears gold from head to foot, but common folk also seem to wear as much as they can afford.
Some of the best examples of royalty showing off are offered by the Akan chiefs of Ghana. A chief parading past his subjects is preceded by military advisers who carry gold leaf-covered wooden staffs whose carved tops represent the natural kingdom to which this chief's kingdom is so closely allied; in one instance the staff-topping finial represents a bush cow with three birds perched on its horns.
Meanwhile, another member of his retinue would carry a ceremonial fly whisk that is meant to drive away evil spirits, not flies. In nature-based religions, such spirits are every bit as real as buzzing flies, so one imagines the servant fervently swatting the air before his chief breathes it.
His approach thus announced by these staffs and fly whisks, the Akan chief is himself seemingly wrapped in gold as he steps forward to greet his subjects. He wears several gold rings on his hands and feet. A finger ring typically will contain a symbol-laden image such as a scorpion, the deadly sting of which refers to the chief's own power. And the chief will even have gold foil straps across his wood sandals, so that subjects who bow their heads and look at his feet will be no less impressed.
Chiefs in other West African lands often set somewhat different standards for ceremonial adornment, which the exhibit handles adequately if not quite as fully as it might. In the Ivory Coast, for instance, goldsmiths generally go in for smoother and simpler design lines. Their jewelry is often worn in the hair of many tribe members, where a boldly simple geometric statement makes more sense than anything too ornate.
A favorite design in the Ivory Coast involves a piece of gold jewelry shaped like a crescent moon on which a human face has been incised. The popularity of this design is explained by a folk proverb: "If a man's face were like the moon, all the world would see it." In other words, you cannot see into a person's thoughts as readily as you can look up at the moon.
The widespread use of gold jewelry by so much of the populace in these West African lands is reinforced by some striking color photographs in which the unadorned individual is the odd man out.
What also comes across is that wearing all that gold seems to elevate rather than weigh down these people. A photograph of a Peul woman in Mali wearing very large, four-lobed gold earrings prompts you to wonder if she feels the pendulous strain. Rest assured. In a display case nearby are the earrings themselves, which are made from such thin and finely incised sheets of gold that you realize this woman has no problem holding her head up proudly.
"Gold of Africa: Jewelry and Ornaments From Ghana, Cote d'Ivoire, Mali and Senegal" remains at the Baltimore Museum of Art, Art Museum Drive, through Nov. 10. Special programs include the Umoja SaSa! Storytellers narrating tales of African gold on Sunday at 3 p.m. Although this program is free with museum admission, reservations must be made by calling 396-6320. Also Sunday, Martha Ehrlich, professor of art history at Southern Illinois University, gives a talk that is free with museum admission, "Great Men Move Slowly: Power in Asante Gold," at 2 p.m. For general exhibit information, call 396-6310.