Accepted paper:

Circulating texts & textiles: encounters with historical Akan culture in British museum collections


Allison Martino (Bowdoin College)

Paper short abstract:

This paper analyzes how the roles of Akan arts shifted since the 19th century from their circulation beyond Africa. Focusing on Bowdich's collection and writings, it suggests how recontextualizing Akan culture in museums informed British and African understandings of Akan arts and inspired artists.

Paper long abstract:

British member of the Africa Company Thomas Edward Bowdich's work about Akan culture during his visit in 1817 is exceptional in how his writings complement objects he donated to the British Museum. This paper explores how the roles and meanings of Akan artworks have shifted since the nineteenth century as a result of cross-cultural exchanges and the circulation of objects beyond the African continent. It focuses on Akan objects that Bowdich collected in the Ashanti Region (present-day Ghana) in 1817 and donated to the British Museum upon his return home. The British Museum holds an important collection of African art, with strengths including Akan arts from Ghana. Notably, Bowdich collected what is now the earliest remaining adinkra cloth, one of the best-known textiles of Africa. This specific adinkra cloth is extraordinary in its historical importance today as a record of interactions between Akan artists and British travelers in West Africa and the introduction of this textile practice by the nineteenth century. Furthermore, the paper considers the influence of Bowdich's work and collection on contemporary art production, such as artist Godfried Donkor's recent work that reimagines illustrations in Bowdich's text, Mission from Cape Coast Castle to Ashantee, which describes his travels to Akan society. The paper suggests how the recontextualization of Akan objects in museum collections that British explorers and colonial administrators acquired during the colonial period has shaped the canon of African art, informing British and African understandings of Akan arts and becoming sources of artistic inspiration for contemporary artists.

panel Art11
Reconnecting African art and artefacts