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About This Artwork
Goldweight Depicting a Bird, 19th/mid–20th century
3.8 x 3.8 x 4.6 cm (1 1/2 x 1 1/2 x 1 13/16 in.)
Gift of Muriel Kallis Newman, 2007.591
Arts of Africa and the Americas
Not on Display
Weights for measuring gold dust were made and used throughout Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire for more than five centuries, from about 1400 to 1900. These weights are either figurative or abstract and are usually divided into an early period (c. 1400–1700) and a late period (c. 1700–1900). During the late period, an increased variety and number of figurative weights emerged, although abstract weights continued to be made. Around the late 14th century, gold mined in the Akan forest regions began to be traded northward—first to the centers of the West African Sahel and then across the Sahara to North Africa. In order to carry out this trade more efficiently, the Akan created two series of weights, one based on the Islamic ounce and one based on the miskal of gold dust. Other weights were later devised for trade with the Portuguese in the late 15th century and then with the Dutch after 1600. Brass cast gold weights ceased being used at the beginning of the 20th century when gold was replaced by bank notes and coinage. However, they continued to be made for sale to tourists.
Many types of animals, birds, and reptiles are represented in Akan gold weights. This one represents a bird with a long and arching coiled neck and abstract shapes on its back, head, and neck that suggest feathers and wide, alert eyes.
—Permanent Collection Object Description
Muriel Kallis Newman (died 2008), Chicago, Ill., by 1980; given to the Art Institute, 2007.