The Artistry of African Currency
For centuries, shells, beads, metal, jewelry, cloth, weapons, tools, and even salt have been used as currency on the African continent. This exhibition from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art explores the cultural beliefs underlying African monetary systems and follows the transformation of plain currencies into objects of beauty.
In Africa, where few extensive nation-states existed, commerce among various societies depended on commonly held values that spanned great geographical distances and a broad diversity of activities. Societies assigned worth to objects that were relevant to their own circumstances: objects that were rare enough to be valued yet plentiful enough to be widely traded. Daily monetary transactions were conducted with cowrie shells, aggrey (glass) beads, woven cloth strips, and raffia mats.
Monetary exchanges were often part of significant life events, such as marriage and birth, and involved items of high intrinsic, symbolic, and artistic value. The iron bridewealth blades of the Lokele and Turumbu peoples and the blade currency of the Ngbaka are examples of such prized objects.
Art, craftsmanship, and skill often influenced the acceptance of an object as currency. Blacksmiths and goldsmiths devoted their virtuosity to the creation of graceful and striking articles to be used for trade.
The very ancient Aksumite coins of Ethiopia were made by die cutters of exceptional talent. Fulani earrings were formed from thin, beaten sheets of gold that were sometimes inscribed with flowers or animals.
In Africa, all but the most ordinary currency was designed, formed, and decorated, in ways that surpassed the requirements of necessity and utility. The Artistry of African Currency examines this fascinating subject with 12 elegantly designed and illustrated panels, two of which incorporate objects used as media of exchange. These include cowrie shells, beads, a manilla (an open bracelet, cast from copper alloy, that circulated along the West African equatorial coast from the late 15th to the early 20th century), an X-shaped copper ingot, and a kissi penny (a type of long, thick iron wire that was traded throughout Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone until the 1970s).