Round Table: focus on the Danford Collection

224, Arts building, Danford Room
Wednesday 23 January 2013 (16:00-19:00)

Formal Articulation of Invisible Agencies in Masks

Zachary Kingdon (World Museum Liverpool)

Masks are complex cultural expressions that function in multiple ways. The relationship between a mask and what it is said to represent, or make visible, is likewise complex. One aspect of masquerade is to make visible ambiguous and invisible agencies, like gods and spirits, often within a ritual complex designed to control or harness such agencies. Sculptural representations of spirits created by Makonde sculptors from the Mueda Plateau in Mozambique share a generic iconography of spirit (‘shetani’) representation based on distortion of the symmetric human form and an aesthetic of ambiguity (for example, in forms that ambiguously fuse animal and human features). In the case of masquerades, which dramatize invisible powers with well articulated characteristics, the iconography is more elaborate and may involve multiple media including music, dance and costume. This paper will consider Ijo and Mende masks in the Danford collection at Birmingham University and attempt to reveal some of the formal and aesthetic techniques employed in the construction of the masks that relate to their visual articulation of specific powers. These techniques will be compared with those used to represent spirits in Makonde ‘shetani’ sculpture in order to illuminate some general principles contingent on the representation of invisible agencies.

Hanging in the balance: weighing up the goldweights of the Gold Coast

Fiona Sheales, British Museum

Goldweights were used to weigh out quantities of gold dust in West Africa before the arrival of European traders on the coast in the late fifteenth century. The majority of gold-weights were created by the Akan-speaking communities that lived on the Gold Coast (now modern-day Ghana). Weights come in a bewildering variety of geometric and figurative forms that accurately document the fauna and flora of this part of West Africa as well as some of the beliefs and cultural practices of its human inhabitants. Gold-weights ceased to be used at the beginning of the 20th century when they were replaced by bank notes and coinage issued by the British Colonial Administration. Many redundant goldweights were collected by visiting Europeans, who subsequently donated them to public museums. Using the goldweights in the Danford collection as illustrative examples I will share some of the insights I have gleaned while preparing for publication the first British Museum gold-weight collection on-line research catalogue.

Part of the Fifty Years of African Studies series