Not-Quite-Ancient Art

I know I promised a short series on the Wari, but I was in Paris last week, and I’d like to write down my thoughts on the Musée du Quai Branly while they’re still relatively fresh.

If you want to experience sheer wonder at human creativity and cultural diversity, then the Quai Branly is the museum for you. They’ve got everything there from Easter Island heads to Native American totem poles, from half-caribou half-walrus shaman masks from the Arctic to creepy voodoo doll’s heads from the Caribbean, from contemporary art produced by Australian Aborigines to Medieval Ethiopian murals, and all kinds of masks and costumes, gods and goddesses, weapons and musical instruments. And the way the objects are presented makes them even more spectacular than they would be by themselves: objects that were “sacred” to those who first made and used them are placed into small chapel-like rooms to the gallery’s sides, each one designed in a different way, and, in the main gallery, I was particularly impressed by how the Ghanaian goldweights were arranged–almost as if they were the splendid debris of an explosion frozen in time–or as if they were a particularly fine infographic.

Half-caribou half-walrus mask

Half-caribou half-walrus mask from somewhere in Alaska. I think it’s Yup’ik, if I remember correctly.

Voodoo shrine

Voodoo-related object of worship from the Caribbean. I’ve lost my notes on who made it/when, so if anyone knows, please tell me in the comments!


The Ghanaian golweights display.

But, but, but. When it first opened in 2006, the Quai Branly was widely criticised for a number of practices which seemed a little… anachronistic.

First, a bit of context. Many museum collections have their roots in colonialism. Back when Western nations had empires, it was considered important to collect objects from the farthest reaches of their colonial possessions, and then display them back home. This for a number of reasons, but, in most cases, it would be fair to say that a collection was meant to celebrate, in some way, the colonial endeavour–for example, by demonstrating how “primitive” conquered peoples were and therefore how much they needed white rulers to “civilise” them, or by showcasing the objects as if they were trophies, almost like severed animal heads in hunting lodges.

In recent decades, however, most museums have tried to shake off their colonial undertones. This in a number of ways, including: involving so-called “source” communities (that is, communities whose ancestors manufactured and used the museum’s objects, or ones like them) in the curation of both permanent and temporary exhibitions; ditching words like “primitive” or “advanced”, and any terminology or way of displaying things that might give an impressions that cultures are being ranked from least sophisticated to most sophisticated; trying to give a sense of how cultures change through time, rather than trying to preserve a timeless, “authentic” idea of what the culture is thought to be like; returning certain objects to their place of origin; and even explicitly tackling colonialism and related phenomena (slavery, racism, turn-of-the-century wars) in their labels and exhibitions.

The Quai Branly, however–when it first opened, and during its first few years of business, it did a number of things which people didn’t agree with. In no particular order: they did ditch the word “primitive”, but in favour of the word “first” (as in, they described the arts of Africa, Oceania, the Americas and parts of Asia as “first arts”, les arts premiers), which many see as just as bad as primitive; they refused to repatriate a number of objects, including Maori warrior’s heads from New Zealand; they did not collaborate with source communities (with the exception of a number of Aboriginal artists who designed a few beautiful murals and the painted roof); they presented non-Western cultures as timeless and changeless; they completely failed to mention colonialism or slavery; and so on. They also enshrouded the gallery in darkness, which some saw as an unfortunate reminder of colonial ideas about Africa, Oceania, the Americas and parts of Asia as dangerous places, mostly made up of jungles, forests and caves, with plenty of shadowy spots for predatory animals and “savages” to hide in waiting for the perfect ambushing opportunity.


One of the murals specially commissioned by the Quai Branly to a number of contemporary Australian Aboriginal artists. This particular one depicts the Milky Way, and was designed by Gulumbu Yunupingu. It can only be seen from outside.

It’s been almost eight years now since the Quai Branly first opened, and I think it’s fair to say that an effort has been made (by individual curators? by the administrative board? I don’t know) to change at least some of these things. Loads of new lights have been installed, to dispel the gallery’s darkness. The Maori heads were returned to New Zealand. Some contemporary stuff was acquired, providing visitors with a vague sense that Africa, Oceania, the Americas and Asia change through time as much as Europe does–a few contemporary Aboriginal paintings, and several huge display cases with some really cool stuff from modern-day Bolivia and the Caribbean (which was actually a nice contrast from how museums usually do this sort of thing–that is, by including one painting or art object from one contemporary artist, tucked away in a little corner, or just at the end before the gift shop, where visitors either won’t see it or won’t care).


Costumes for the Devil and his mistress, for the Bolivian Diablada festival. Highlight of my visit.


Costume for the Archangel Michael, also for the Diablada.


This bear (ukuy) is also an important figure in the Diablada–originally it was a spectacled bear, which you can actually see in the Andes (if you’re lucky), but for some reason now it’s a polar bear. The effect of one too many Coke adverts perhaps?

However, besides this, I don’t think the Quai Branly has made any more efforts to collaborate with source communities, nor could I discern any attempt at problematising where their objects come from–I don’t think colonialism is ever mentioned, except perhaps for the Spanish conquest of the Americas, which is simply presented as “the end” of ancient American arts and cultures. Also, they still use the term “first arts”.

And, because this is mostly an archaeology blog, it’s worth pointing out that Quai Branly labels also fail to mention both the illegal trade of antiquities and looting, which is very probably how many of the archaeological objects got there. To be fair, this could be said of most museums, even ones that could otherwise be considered more “enlightened” than the Quai Branly, but it’s still worth pointing out.


“This item was part of a hanging several metres long found on the north coast of Peru in 1951. With its exceptional dimensions, iconography and range of colours, it was divided into several panels to be sold more easily”. This is the only reference to looting and the illegal traffic in cultural material I could find at the Quai Branly–worded in such a way that it almost seems like a reasonable thing for an ancient Peruvian textile to be mutilated this way.


If you see an ancient terracotta from Djenne in a museum that isn’t the one in Bamako (Mali), the likelihood is extremely high that it was looted, and found its way out of Mali by illicit means. Perhaps the label should mention this?

The Quai Branly, then, is an infuriating mixture of absolutely awesome objects and displays, anachronistic display and curatorial practices, and a few successful and semi-successful attempts at correcting some of these practices. If you haven’t been, I recommend you go–both to see the objects on display (especially the Diablada stuff), and to think, how would you do things differently? Is there a way of talking about looting, colonialism or the illegal trade in cultural materials that will actually grab museum visitors’ attention? Is the darkness really an issue, or is it just overthinkers overthinking it? What would you substitute the term “first arts” with, assuming a term like that is needed to describe what the museum is about? And what contemporary cultural phenomena from Africa, Oceania, the Americas and Asia should be included in the display, to give a sense of how non-Western cultures have changed through time?

Answers to these questions, other questions, criticisms, or comments are, as always, very welcome, both from those who’ve been to to the Quai Branly and from those who haven’t.

Easter Island art is not all about the giant stone moai heads–the wooden figurines the islanders used to carve out of crooked toromiro tree branches (or, sometimes, driftwood) are just as weird and wonderful. Here, I want to tell you about the genre of Easter Island art known as moai kavakava–that is, “ribcage figure”.

A slightly crooked moai kavakava. (Image credit: Wikimedia Commons)

A slightly crooked moai kavakava. (Image credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Moai kavakava sculptures tend to be about 50-60 cm high, and depict grinning old men with goatee beards and hugely protruding ribcages and backbones. Their earlobes are large and pendulous (possibly because they are weighed down by chunky earrings), the arms are disproprtionately long and the legs disproportionally short, and the tops of their bald heads are often decorated with enigmatic motifs such as stars, crouching quadrupeds, and men’s faces ornamented with long, flowing beards. Could these be tattoos? Symbols of whatever clan the sculptures belonged to? Who knows. Moai kavakava also tend to be slightly crooked, and some have suggested that it’s because suitable trees were scarce on the island, and carvers had to make do with branches that were a bit bent and weird–but I would take this story with a pinch of salt.

This is the sort of thing that you can see on some moai kavakava sculptures' heads. (Image credit: Heyerdahl 1976: 182)

This is the sort of thing that you can see on some moai kavakava sculptures’ heads. (Image credit: Heyerdahl 1976: 182)

The whites of a moai kavakava‘s eyes will have been carved out of fish vertebrae, shells, or Europeans’ pant buttons, and the pupils were made out of obsidian. That is, when they’re there at all–a lot of museum moai kavakava lack one or two pupils, more than we’d expect if they just fell off at random. Based on comparisons with other Polynesian traditions (for example, the Maori), it’s likely that the figures were believed to be alive when both their pupils were inserted, so whoever sold them to Westerners probably ensured that they were little more than inert pieces of wood at the moment of the transaction.

I don’t know if moai kavakava are still produced today, but I do know that, in the 1950s, and possibly starting from the nineteenth century, they were carved in large quantities and sold to tourists. There’s one anthropologist (Métraux 1954: 147) who disapprovingly mentions the “aberrant forms made to gratify the bad taste of Chilean crews”–unfortunately, I couldn’t find any pictures (except, possibly, for the one below), but apparently these sculptures, though in many ways similar to the more traditional ones, also wore sailor’s caps, or did military salutes, or held smaller copies of themselves in their arms.

Someone put a wig on that moai kavakava--could be tourist tat? (Image credit:

Someone put a wig on that moai kavakava–could be tourist tat? (Image credit:

But to return to the more traditional forms… what were they about?

Many authors have suggested that the moai kavakava figures depicted actual people. Heyerdahl (1976: 186) even quotes an anonymous native informant as saying that “[o]ur ancestors did not know how to take photographs […] but they knew how to illustrate by carving”, suggesting that wood carving was the ancient Easter Islanders’ equivalent of photography.

Heyerdahl himself tells the story of a legendary Easter Island folk hero, Tuu-ko-ihu, stumbling one day upon two figures lying inside a “crater”. These figures were little more than skin and bones, and they were lying so still that Tuu-ko-ihu thought they were dead–except then they woke up (in some versions of the story they were roused by an unseen third member of their party) and, having spotted Tuu-ko-ihu, proceeded to chase him all the way home, making it clear he was not speak about them to anyone. So, instead of telling everyone what he’d just experienced, Tuu-ko-ihu simply carved a likeness of those ugly creatures–and thus the first ever moai kavakava were made.

(Image credit: Kjellgren 2001: 48)

(Image credit: Kjellgren 2001: 48)

In Heyerdahl’s (1976: 186) version of the story, the two figures were the island’s mythical original inhabitants, “driven into the mountains by the newcomers and then driven frantic by famine”. However, there is no archaeological evidence for the ancestors of modern-day Eastern Islanders taking their land from previous inhabitants–as far as we can tell, the ancestors of modern-day Easter Islanders were the first to ever set foot on the island.

Another popular theory is that the moai kavakava figures depicted ancient Easter Islanders who had starved themselves to death, or almost to death, by completely trashing their island’s ecosystem. However, as Beverley Haun (among others) argues in her 2010 book Inventing “Easter Island”, Easter Island was probably not destroyed by its own inhabitants, so this interpretation also lacks credibility.

Another crooked specimen. (Image credit: Kjellgren 2001: 48)

Another crooked specimen. (Image credit: Kjellgren 2001: 48)

Also, realistic representation of things just isn’t what Polynesian art is about. Almost any example you could think of of an anthropomorphic sculpture from that region of the Pacific will be understood by its makers as a slightly mind-bending combination of a vessel for an ancestor’s spirit to inhabit during rituals (in this case, when the obsidian pupils are inserted), and the ancestor him- or herself. Of course, it’s entirely possible that Heyerdahl’s one anonymous twentieth-century informant was right when he said that Easter Islanders were the only population in prehistoric Polynesia to develop realistic portraiture (it is the most remote of the islands), but, overall, it seems unlikely–the fact that all moai kavakava look alike, the weird stuff going on with their pupils, and a story of Tuu-ko-ihu calling back a wayward spirit into one of his woodcarvings, all make more sense if the moai kavakava were ancestor figures rather than a way of proto-photographing your famine-struck friends and families. Oh and there are some strange examples of moai kavakava with, instead of the usual grinning old man’s face, have the head of a lizard, or that of a bird–which, again, suggests that they were metaphysical beings rather than physical ones.

A bird-headed and -winged ribcage figure: what's going on here? (Image credit: Kaeppler 2001: 36)

A bird-headed and -winged ribcage figure: what’s going on here? (Image credit: Kaeppler 2001: 36)

And, in another version of the story Heyerdahl tells, this time told by Métraux, the entities that Tuu-ko-ihu stumbles upon were apus (that is, more or less, spirits/ancestors), not starving refugees.

Why talk about this stuff in an archaeology blog? As I’ve said before, in my post about Hawaiian wood carvings, so much has happened between eighteenth-century colonial contact and the present day, so little lore has been retained from those times, that many traditional Polynesian cultures are as lost to us as cultures that disappeared thousands of years ago. So there is very little difference between how we can try to approach what remains of relatively recent Polynesian cultures, and long-lost ones from other parts of the world.

I should say, moai kavakava figures are not the only types of wooden figures that Easter Islanders used to carve–but that, perhaps, is a story for another post…


Haun, B. 2010. Inventing “Easter Island”. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Heyerdahl, T. 1976. The Art of Easter Island. London: Allen & Unwin.

Kaeppler, A. 2001. Rapa Nui art and aesthetics. In Kjellgren, E. (ed) Splendind Isolation: Art of Easter Island pp. 32-41. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Kjellgren, E. 2001. Splendid Isolation: Art of Easter Island. New York. Metropolitan Museum of New York.

Metraux, A. 1957. Easter Island: A Stone-Age Civilization of the Pacific. London: Deutsch.

We know next to nothing about a lot of Oceanian art. Though many accounts of traditional ways of life in the Pacific Islands were written in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries by Europeans, and, somewhat later, by Pacific Islanders themselves, these accounts usually provide only the vaguest references to the islands’ art. This is for a variety of reasons–for example, Europeans automatically dismissing most of the objects they saw as pagan “idols” or “fetishes”, or Pacific Islanders either not knowing what these objects meant because knowledge was guarded by a select few, or knowing but not wanting to share, or refusing to talk about the art because it was connected to traditional religion and they had converted to Christianity. The end result is always the same: we know so little about these objects that they might as well have been left behind by cultures that vanished thousands of years ago, rather than ones that are arguably still alive today. This is why, after about a month wondering whether I should or shouldn’t, I have decided to dedicate a post to art from the Pacific Ocean.


Double bowl with figure, with red feathers and possibly dog fur for hair. Late eighteenth/mid nineteenth century. The spots on the skin are pearl disks. Is the figure repairing the bigger bowl with its rope? I don’t know. Also, interestingly, though wearing a male loincloth, this figure is equipped with a vulva. Oh and also, I’m illustrating this post with my drawings because I’m getting paranoid about the use of copyrighted images. You can see the original here.

In particular, I want to talk about Hawaiian support figures. These are a particular category of Hawaiian wooden sculpture which includes human-like characters enhancing chiefly items like drums, bowls, and spear stands, often not merely by decorating them, but also by actually making them more useful or practical–for example, by lifting them up off their grounds with powerful legs and arms, or, in the case of a certain bowl, by allowing you to place condiments in their big round mouths. Besides their big mouths, these support figures are characterised by big chunky teeth (made from sawed-off dog bones or boar tusks), large eyes, and muscly limbs. Their heads are, for the most part, bald and shiny now, but they used to be decorated with shocks of “hair” made of dog fur, bright red feathers, or even actual human locks (right). Their poses suggest “the buffoon, the acrobat, or the playful imp. They exhibit neither noble bearing, pride, nor manifestation of mana [which can be translated, very very very roughly, as a kind of sacredness]. Instead, they are eternally committed to humble work, which they do lightly and with a cooperative and playful spirit” (Cox & Davenport 1974: 51).


Bowl with two figure supports. Mid/late eighteenth century–given to Captain Charles Clerke in 1778 by a chief of Kaua’i. The teeth are made of boar tusks. You can see the original here.

There is an intriguing possibility that these figures represent the menehune–pixie-like creatures from Hawaiian folklore. Like the support figures, menehune are described as stout, strong and muscular, with ugly faces and short thick noses, hard workers but also playful and fun-loving. Cox & Davenport go on to say that menehune stories were a form of escapism for commoners, which allowed them “vicarious participation in glamorous adventures, playing the impish hero and making fun of the haughty noble” (52). This in turn leads Cox & Davenport to suggest that carving these impish figures was a way for artists to indulge their own creativity, free from the constraints that came with depicting powerful gods. It’s an interesting idea, but the fact that support figures are exclusively found on items which would once have belonged to chiefs–as opposed to commoners or carvers–suggests that these figures were not nearly as subversive as Cox & Davenport suggest. In other words, they had a serious political purpose–most likely, they were one of the things that gave material form to the chief’s power.


This figure (who may look very manly but was once a woman, with long flowing locks), used to be where chiefs would sit in a temple just before sacrifice. Late eighteenth/early nineteenth century. Original here.

How? The first thing that I thought when I first came across Hawaiian support figures was that they might be a way for chiefs to pretend they had way more servants than they actually have. As far as I can tell, no one, in the official literature, has had this idea. Nor is there any evidence to support it, beyond the simple fact that these figures pose as though carrying out menial jobs. I guess their limbs are also designed to draw people’s attention and give an impression of strength–some of the support figures’ arms are positively gorilla-like. And the expressions on many of the figures’ faces could be interpreted as reflecting intense physical effort. However, I wonder if there is a reasonably scientific way of testing this hypothesis, that is independent of what the figures actually look like… if anyone has any ideas, I’d be happy to hear them in the comments section below.


The bowl that humiliates Kahahana and Kepuapoi of Oahu. Currently in Honolulu’s Bishop Museum.

But masquerading as extra servants isn’t the only way that Hawaiian support figures can advertise a chief’s power. An alternative interpretation of these sculptures is that they represent the chief’s enemies doing humble, humiliating jobs. By enemies, I mean both rival chiefs or rebels. I had this idea while I was drawing some of these sculptures–this activity always helps me look closer at things, and, in this case, it made me realise that the figures’ faces could often be interpreted as expressing fear. This, in turn, reminded me of the “cannibal furniture”, made of stuffed people with their faces frozen in panic, which made rare but memorable appearances in the cartoons of my childhood (see the Headhunting in Oregon episode of Cow & Chicken). The only scrap of proof that something even remotely like this might have been the case for Hawaiian support figures is a legend about a particular bowl (above, left), now at Hawaii’s Bishop Museum, in which the supporting figures are said to represent chief Kahahana of Oahu and his consort, Kepuapoi. The owner of the bowl, chief Kahekili of Maui, had commissioned this bowl to commemorate his victory against Kahahana and Kepuapoi, and to humiliate his enemies further by transforming their mouths into containers for seasonings such as salt and seaweed. However, Cox & Davenport write that this story is of “questionable authenticity” (57).

Bowl with three figures. Late eighteenth/early nineteenth century. Original here.

Bowl with three figures. Late eighteenth/early nineteenth century. Original here.

A final way in which Hawaiian support figures have been seen as materialising the chief’s power is by demonstrating his or her disrespect towards both rivals and people of lower status. Specifically, Kaeppler (1982) points out that, in traditional Hawaiian culture, jutting your chin forward and stretching your mouth wide open, exposing both teeth and tongue, is a gesture of disrespect. Only chiefs could be disrespectful with impunity, and indeed it was important for them to express disrespect towards their political rivals, so having objects that seemed to poke fun at their guests was a clear sign of one’s power.

These are all the theories I could find or come up about Hawaiian support figures–if anyone knows of others, or has their own, or indeed has any other comments to make, feel free to share below!


Cox, J. and W.H. Davenport. 1974. Hawaiian Sculpture. Honolulu: University Press of Hawaii.

Kaeppler, A. 1982. Genealogy and disrespect: a study of symbolism in Hawaiian images. RES (3): 82-107.

(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.


Erotic gold weight from Ghana, obviously. 18th/19th century, 7.5 cm tall. Currently on display at Norwich’s Sainsbury Centre for the Visual Arts. Photo uncredited on the museum’s website.

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.

Akan elephant. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Akan elephant. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.

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)


One of the gold weights described in Garrard’s article, photographer uncredited. From the article: “The woman does not appear to be enjoying these gymnastics, for she wears a pained expression and scratches her left ear, while her leg waves in the air. Incidentally this leg has been placed back to front in an anatomically impossible position”.

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.

A more lively couple, again from Garrard's article, again photographer uncredited.

A more lively couple, again from Garrard’s article, again photographer uncredited.

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”.

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