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Photo: Paul Macapia

Soul washer's disc (akrafokonmu)

20th century



Such discs protect the wearer from danger. The radiating pattern refers to the sun, which is the source of each person's kra-the spiritual essence given to a child at birth. They are worn by rulers, queen mothers and by individuals known as akrafo, or soul washers, who conduct ceremonies to purify leaders' souls.

Gold wash, silver core, 1 1/2 x 4 5/8 in. (3.81 x 11.75 cm), Gift of Katherine White and the Boeing Company, 81.17.414,

Now on view at Seattle Art Museum



Abundant gold resources fueled Asante prosperity and were recognized as the earthly counterpart to the sun. The experience of handling gold was heightened by the belief that gold was the material embodiment of kra, or life force. By the fourteenth century, all the equipment used for trading gold was in high demand. The manufacture of gold weights peaked in the 1700s with the increased availability of brass and bronze from Portuguese sources. Members of the goldsmith's guild cast gold weights using a lost-wax process-and a "lost beetle" process-which involved casting from natural items such as seeds, pods, snails, beetles and other natural forms.

Gold weights flourished in production and use until the end of the nineteenth century. By 1868, a new proverb was created, "The white man has only one weight," as the gold trade was declining and the British were undermining Asante leadership and bringing in large shipments of silver coins. In 1912, the British declared the use of any currency other than their own illegal. During the twentieth century, gold weights took on appeal as collectibles, and the production of replicas blossomed and continues to the present day.

Assorted gold weights, Ghana, Akan  
Photo: Paul Macapia

Frustrating the Swiss

An account by a Swiss missionary describes how gold weights worked in the Asante capital of Kumasi in 1875:

"Each person carries his own weights with him, but those of the vendors would be found too heavy and those of the purchasers too light. Arguments go on for a long time until the correct weight is produced.…

The weighing of gold can be as delightful as it is tiring, especially in the case of small purchases, for example, when you want to buy fruit or vegetables from the market woman… a transaction worth a few pennies takes up as much time as one involving several ounces. This can teach a white man patience, but in my case I lost patience again and again."

Part of Adoom Street (detail), from A Mission From Cape Coast Castle to Ashantee, 1819, Thomas E. Bowditch, British, 1790-1824  

The "Most Important" Art Form

While gold weights are a small and collectible part of Asante art, advisor Koo Nimo recommends looking at processions as the "most important" art form. He calls them "the mobile museum" or a "walking museum." These processions include drummers, holders of the keys, stools, musketeers, shield dancers and finally the king, who is dressed in gold rings, wears sandals, and may be surrounded by as many as twenty-three umbrella carriers. The enstoolment of Asantehene Otumfuo Osei Tutu II, in Kumasi, Ghana, in April 1999, is considered the height of this panoply. An excerpt is available on the Explore page.

Asantehene Otumfuo Osei Tutu II in procession, December 31, 2006   Photo: Natalie Mossin