(I’ve added something important to this article at the end!)
I’m never sure whether or not to talk about erotic art on this blog. Based on my own experience, people will click on any link with the words “sex” or “erotic” in the title, and there is a small, proud (but perhaps not very savvy) part of me that wants to get people to read this blog without recurring to such low tricks as writing about saucy subject matter.
However, from the moment I set eyes on this 19th century gold weight made by the Akan of Ghana and depicting an intertwining couple (left), I knew I wanted to write something about it. It’s so lovely and intimate, with the two figures holding each other close but not too tight, and the woman’s left hand reaching up to the hair on the back of the man’s head, and her mouth seemingly kissing his nose. And, though clearly sensual, it is also oddly chaste: the genitals are not depicted, or at least they are not evident, and there is no kissing either–the woman’s mouth is close to, but not quite touching, the man’s nose. But there is a tension towards that nose all across the woman’s face, I think, as if the smith had decided to depict the millisecond just before contact.
A note: kissing is, apparently, a relatively recent introduction in West Africa–or, at least, Garrard, writing in 1982, notes that, though “[t]oday this pleasure is widely enjoyed, at least privately, by young Akan who explore its possibilities with varying degrees of skill”, and though there are 17th-century records of devout Akan kissing religious effigies, many informants had insisted to him that previous generations (including the ones that produced this object) were not familiar with this practice. It is possible, of course, that this is simply a case of people idealising the past (public kissing was considered indecent in Ghana at the time of Garrard’s writing), but it makes sense that kissing did not emerge as an expression of affection in all parts of the world.
The belt the woman is wearing is also worth pointing out. For some reason, this item gives me a sense that this is humble, day-to-day, un-special (but at the same time special) sex that is depicted. I can easily imagine someone interpreting the belt as a sign that the act is, in fact, rushed and businesslike, a “quickie” perhaps, wedged between the couple’s daily activities–but I like my version better.
It turns out that, among Akan gold weights, which have been numbered in the millions, erotic subject matter is extremely rare. Gold weights, which are actually made of brass, and known in Ghana as mrammou, were used in the region between the 15th and the early 20th centuries to measure precise quantities of gold dust, which was the main currency, and merchandise. They take a mind-boggling variety of forms, from local birds and antelope heads and elephants (right), to abstract motifs that may have constituted a sort of proto-alphabet, to hunters and healers. Not only that, but these objects are an archaeologist’s dream, in that they have clear, solid links to stories, proverbs, and sayings. In other words, no speculation is necessary about their meanings, there are no elaborate card castles of tenuous clues and “maybes” behind their interpretations–instead, the Akan tradition being alive and well today, we know exactly what each gold weight says. So, for example, a gold weight depicting a snake in the act of catching a hornbill represents the proverb “although the snake does not fly, it has caught the hornbill, whose home is the sky”. This is a reference to a story in which a hornbill keeps avoiding paying his debts to a snake by flying away, until one day, in a moment of carelessness, it was finally caught. This story is meant to inspire patience and optimism.
(there is something really neat about the fact that stories had such an important role in business transactions–the laughing merchant carrying a string of his favourite proverbs to work, each one an exquisite little gold item, should definitely be a character in a book)
As Garrard points out, if gold weights usually have stories attached to them, then erotic gold weights must do too–and, of the sex-themed Akan proverbs or sayings that Garrard was able to collect, almost all of them could be interpreted badly by one’s transaction partner, who might leave the deal, offended, and never do business with you again. These proverbs include “a woman who actually sleeps with her husband is the one who has the right to ask for intercourse” (“are you implying my wife cheats on me, sir??” the somewhat paranoid trades-partner might ask), “roadside sex is indulged in hurriedly”, and “a fresh vagina wakes up a weak penis” (“are you saying I’m impotent??”).
But a small number of erotic gold weights were produced, and it is good to wonder why they were made, since they were such risky subject matter. Here Garrard, who wrote the only article on erotic Akan gold weights I could find, offers no help. Personally, though I have no evidence to support this, I like the idea that at least some erotic gold weights were custom-made with the aim of pleasing certain particularly lewd business partners, who would probably like you more and therefore be better business partners if you shared dirty jokes with them while making trades. Then again, the particular object I’m talking about here does not seem to be designed to titillate, nor do I think it would lend itself well to a dirty joke (the others shown here more so). Perhaps what we have here is not so much an object that is meant to remind people of the sexual act per se, but simply the union of a loving couple–which could well be used as a strange but inoffensive metaphor for the alliance between trading partners.
References/suggestions for further reading
Garrard, T.F. 1982. Erotic Akan Golweights. African Arts 15 (2): 60-62. Available in full here, where you’ll find more sex-proverbs and, more importantly, Garrard’s charming writing style.
For a random assortment of non-erotic proverbs, stories and sayings, including the one about the hornbill, go here.
Also, this object reminded me a lot of the Ain Sakri Lovers Figurine, currently on display at the British Museum–go here if you want to listen to an excellent 15-minute BBC Radio4 program on it.
NB An online search for “erotic akan gold weight” may result in a greater number of examples than you’d expect after reading this article… but many of the items that will come up will most likely be modern-day mass-produced erotic tourist curios, which Garrard himself rants about at the beginning of his article.
NBB A friend of mine recently did a short project on the very object that inspired this post, and she made a persuasive case that this is not, in fact, a piece of erotic art. She pointed out that it is not as obviously sexual as other erotic gold weights known from Ghana (including the ones shown here), that it’s probably significant that the woman is not entirely naked (she actually interprets the “belt” as part of a loincloth), and that Western observers (myself included, I guess, at least in this case) find it a bit too easy to see non-Western things, art included, as erotic. My friend’s interpretation is that the gold weight simply represents a loving couple, and may have been meant to recall proverbs relating to conjugal harmony–such as “A good wife is more precious than gold”.