Cultural Currency

The currency objects were too heavy or large to be used for Suzanne Walters Gray MFA ’04 + photography by Andrew Lichtenstein ’88

American currency is about as utilitarian as can be: small, lightweight, generally unremarkable. Such is not the case with the currency of West African agricultural tribes, who created large, sculptural currency out of iron and copper. Shaped like useful objects such as farm tools, weapons, and personal adornments, the currency is now collected as art. A sizeable collection belongs to art history faculty emeritus Philip Gould, who owns about 600 pieces of this enigmatic money.

How did West Africans come to use things like 10-pound iron bracelets for exchange? Gould explains that Africans discovered how to smelt iron around 500 B.C., and the tools and decorations they created were so useful that they quickly became used for barter. One could trade a farm implement or two for a cow, a wife, or a slave—the three most common purchases.

But it quickly became clear that actual farm tools were impractical for bartering, Gould says. “For expensive transactions, you needed a lot of these things. But who needs twelve shovels? Twelve shovel-like objects, on the other hand, were a different story.” People began shaping iron into familiar forms—hoes, swords, bracelets—and using them for money.

To distinguish them from their functional counterparts, the currency objects were too heavy or large to be used for work. One piece from Gould’s collection, a giant hoe-shaped piece from Cameroon, is the size of a torso and weighs about 20 pounds. Another, from the Mbole tribe of modern-day Congo, is a four-foot-long spear. “These objects were very heavy and big and cumbersome. A rich man had big problems—he had to have a slave or retainer to carry his treasure.”

Even with a lackey’s help, taking a pile of gigantic iron or copper pieces to the market seems impractical to those accustomed to a wallet of bills. But Gould says that this form of currency was quite practical, because the metal had intrinsic value. If you suddenly needed a functional shovel or spear, you could always melt down some currency and make one. Paper money, on the other hand, has no value of its own. If it goes out of fashion, the best we can do is start a fire.

Metal currency was used in West Africa for hundreds of years, falling out of use only in the 1960’s, when most African countries gained independence from colonial powers. The new governments instituted Western-style banking systems, and the old currency was melted down for other uses, sold to traders, or forgotten in the shed. Africans today are largely unaware of the massive objects their grandparents used for money, Gould says.

As a world traveler, Gould has long been fascinated by the artwork of Africa, Asia, and the Pacific Rim. In addition to African currency, he collects textiles, pottery, masks, and other art objects from around the world, and has acted as curator for a variety of exhibits of these objects. But most of his currency collection was purchased here in New York City.

It’s not surprising that African currency is now collected as art, Gould says. The objects were created not just out of a need for money, but also to serve as objects of beauty. Iron and copper were practical metals, but their selection for currency was also an aesthetic choice: Africans preferred the patina of iron and the reddish tint of copper and brass to the dull shine of gold, he notes. The size of the objects was an aesthetic choice as well. “Humans are attracted to scale. There is a human impulse to make things big.”

Gould appreciates the elemental nature of the objects, how the iron becomes pitted with age, the delicate etching on a bracelet too weighty for any wrist. “Art is always perfect,” he says with a smile.

After looking at his collection of African currency, American money starts to seem uninspired. It’s not sculpture, it has a single use; a dollar is just a dollar, and it weighs almost nothing.

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