History

Until the arrival of the Portuguese explorers in 1474, the various Akan groups were organized in small independent kingdoms. Gold was in such abundance in the area that the Portuguese named it the Gold Coast. The indigenous tribes have preserved the tradition of goldsmithery to this day. The omnipresence of gold in the everyday life of the kings especially in their luxurious ornaments reveals a social hierarchy where power is represented in gold. The king cannot show or give audience without wearing gold in abundance, his jewels, his throne, his other signs of power. Gold is everywhere: in the hair, the ornaments, and the clothing. And what then of the funeral ritual? Was there also a place for gold in ceremonies honoring the deceased?

The manufacture of effigies to be placed in places of worship associated with the funerary rituals had been common within the Akan ethnic group since antiquity. During a long stay on the Gold Coast in 1601, Pieter De Marees observed a royal funeral. He reported that the important figures were represented out of modelled and painted clay. These effigies were laid out around the burial site.

At first glance, the terra cotta heads do not reveal their relation to death. They have consistant stylistic characteristics however: an oval or an almost perfectly circular shape, regular features, and a long neck. The obvious serenity of the majority of these pieces can be quite moving, especially in the strongly pronounced eyes which seem fixed and the mouth sometimes with a pout or a slight smile.

It seems that these royal funerary terra cotta portrait figures functioned like photography for the Akan, that is to maintain the memory the deceased. For the Akan, this sculptural art was deeply related to a social significance and a function: at the sides of the commemorative figures of the chief were other statuettes representing the members of his family and other courtiers, such as women, public speakers, tambourine players and trumpeters.