Brass Female Figure, Ashanti/Asante, Ghana. 20th century
Gift of Jack Johnson Kimbrough
Cat. 1993 JK 67.
The Asante Empire, located in the nation of Ghana, developed a systemized form of trade with Dutch, Portuguese and N. African nations in the 15th and 16th centuries. The foreign traders desired the extensive gold supply located in the region. To streamline the trade process, the Asante developed a standardized weight and counterweight system using brass, copper and gold. The counterweights for measuring gold took various forms. The majority of weights were geometric in appearance, however many were cast (using the lost-wax process) into representational figures to represent the vast catalog of Asante proverbs. The brass weight on the left represents an Asante proverb of an elderly woman pounding fufu. According to Asante myth,
“In the beginning, the sky and the earth were close together. One day, a woman was pounding fufu (a kind of yam, an Ashanti staple). The mortar was firmly on earth, but the pestle kept knocking the sky, God’s dwelling place. God decided to move the sky higher, but the woman instructed her children to pile up mortars on top of one another. As the pile nearly reached the sky, the tower collapsed, killing all the children and creating a gap between humans and God.
The story has it that long ago, God (Nyame) was so close to human beings that one could easily reach out to Him in the sky. However, one day an old woman accidentally hit Nyame’s dwelling place with a pestle while pounding “fufu” (mashed plantain/yam/cassava). She apologized to God, and begged him to move up a little further. God agreed and went up a little as requested. Then the pestle hit God again, and again. Therefore, Nyame went up so high that no human could or can ever see or hit God anymore, forever.”
The long staff used to pound the fufu serves as a conduit to connect to the heavens. This brass piece serves a utilitarian role as a weight but also represents the ongoing practice of women pounding fufu to reenact the actions of the ancient woman and to ensure an ongoing connection with the god Nyame for the entire Asante kingdom.
Imbo, Samuel O. Oral Traditions as Philosophy: Okot p’Bitek’s Legacy for African Philosophy. Lanham MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. 2002.