Inside the Collection

Ghanaian baboon ring, from the jewellery exhibition ‘A fine possession’

Baboon ring, cast gold, Ghana, West Africa
Baboon ring, cast gold, Ghana, West Africa, 1860. Collection Museum of Old and New Art, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia

This ring shares characteristics with other magnificent gold object for which the Asante goldsmiths are fanmous. From the records we are almost certain this glorious golden ring from Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) collection originated in Ghana. The Asante considered gold to embody sunlight and life’s vital forces and it was fashioned into elaborate royal regalia for the Asante kings.

Why a baboon on a ring? Baboon myths were associated with Ghana from early Egyptian times. For centuries the virile and cunning baboon was highly prized by the Egyptians and revered as the earthly symbol of the Egyptian god Thoth. They were thought to assist to sun rise every morning with their predawn cries. Many baboons were imported from Ghana into Egypt over the centuries.

Oral tradition and iconography are very closely associated in Ghanaian cultures interwoven with traditional stories and proverbs. So what is the story this ring tells us?

Despite being vegetarian, baboons are known to catch locusts with speed and sleight of hand. These insects are known to destroy crops that the hard working farmers ids growing to feed his family. It certainly appears to be a locust that the baboon is eating. One Ghanaian myth tells how the farmer kept shooting the baboons that were killing his crops. A village elder suggested he stop killing the baboons and treat them well. Subsequently the baboons helped by eating the locusts and good fortune came to the farmer in the way of healthy children.

On the ring the farmer is not pointing his gun at the baboon, he is standing with the baboon, almost hiding behind it and pointing his gun beyond it. It is as if he is protected by the baboon.

Dating the ring is interesting. Its powerful design could be read as 20th century. But a closer look reveals that the gun held by the farmer, is a muzzle-loaded smooth bored flintlock musket from the early 18th century. It required 2 pouches, one for gun powder, one for shot, which is slung over the farmer’s shoulder. The Enfield rifle replaced this cumbersome system in 1853*. So this depiction of the farmer could be nostalgic, reflecting the past or the ring may have been made in the mid nineteenth century when those guns were in common use.

Why is it so large and bear-like? Perhaps it is a receptacle. This would explain why the baboon’s body need to be slightly out of proportion-to hold aromatic herbs, snuff or tobacco. Also on the left side is a triangular hole cut into the gold. The triangle was an important symbol in the matrilineal society of the Asante. The king wore a large gold triangle on his chest, along with dozens of gold rings, triangular amulets, bracelets and anklets.

If you put the baboon ring on your right hand, the hole is perfectly placed for the wearer to sniff aromatic substances when he or she bring their hand to their face. The baboon’s feet are placed flat with toes splayed. Coupled with the flat disc supporting his body, this would enable the ring to sit stably on the hand and finger. A gold pendant in the Barakat collection house is very similar to this one but the figures look upward. Both figures have triangular incisions in the gold. It has a similarly striated surface to represent the fur, and feet in the same position. This rare and glorious object is tantalising with its untold stories. I hope this has opened the discussions and brought us a little closer to its origins.
This baboon ring and over 700 other pieces of jewellery are on display in the exhibition A fine possession: jewellery and identity.

* Britain exported 400,000 guns per annum to Africa as early as the mid 18th century

Courlander , Harold A treasury of African folklore, Marlowe & Co, New York
Western African Gold: Out of the ordinary

Written by Lindie Ward, Curator, Design and Society

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