Workmanship, wisdom enrich objects in 'Gold of Africa'


The elephant and the bush-cow stand side by side at the top of the 5-foot-tall staff, carved in wood but agleam with a covering of gold leaf. Why an elephant and a bush-cow? Because they refer to the proverb, "The bush-cow says that if the elephant is not around, he is the mountain."

Translation: "When a more important person is absent, the lesser thinks himself great."

This staff from Ghana is typical in more than one way of the riches of "Gold of Africa: Jewelry and Ornaments from Ghana, Cote d'Ivoire, Mali and Senegal" at the Baltimore Museum of Art. It's impressive because it's gold, and also because of its workmanship. But it's not just meant to impress; it has meaning in the context of the people for whom it was made, and meaning that even those outside that context can appreciate.

Taken from the collection of the Barbier-Mueller Museum in Geneva, the show consists of about 160 objects, from earrings and helmets to necklaces and sandals, made by the peoples of West Africa from the late 18th to the late 20th century.

As the show's texts point out, the area has been rich in gold for many centuries. Its peoples are many, from Maure and Taureg of Mauritania and Mali to Tukulor and Wolof in Senegal, the Akan of Ghana and the Akan-related peoples of Cote d'Ivoire. They have traded gold to Europeans, of course, but it is also an important source among them of wealth, stature and symbolic meaning.

As the objects demonstrate, the goldsmiths of these people are artists of great accomplishment, skilled in such demanding techniques as granulation and lost-wax casting.

The exhibit, perhaps reflecting the collection from which it comes, is considerably lopsided, with almost two thirds of its works from Ghana; nevertheless, it does give the viewer some idea of the stylistic variations of gold working among these regions.

Senegalese works, for instance, are the most elaborate, often French-inspired and employing much filigree. The threading that covers the surfaces of much Cote d'Ivoire work results in a look at once refined, modern and at times bordering on the abstract. Ghanian works tend to be big, bold and symbolic, many depicting animals and people which relate to proverbs and give them an added layer of interest.

The frog, for instance, refers to the proverb "The length of the frog is known only after his death." This means, we are informed, "A man's worth is not appreciated in his lifetime." A staff finial which shows a man eating while another watches refers to the legitimacy of the chief and serves as a warning to would-be usurpers. But the actual words of the proverb it illustrates contain a message which, if not altogether attractive, certainly describes the way the world works:

"The man who owns a thing eats it and not the man who is hungry."

The Baltimore Museum of Art is located on Art Museum Drive near Charles and 31st streets. The gold exhibit runs through Nov. 10. Call 396-7100.

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