Q Do you remember the old Calvin Klein homewares ad that used beautiful African jewellery as interior decor? My friend says it's from the Mbole people. Is there anything like that available in Hong Kong?
WHAT THE EXPERT SAYS:
'African currency objects were used to trade and store wealth,' says Scott Minick, of Tao Evolution, who recently returned from a buying trip to the Ivory Coast. 'They might be used for major purchases of land or animals, or to signify a transfer of wealth at major events, such as birth, coming of age, marriage or death. The most frequent use was as bride wealth to compensate for the loss of a daughter or as a dowry.'
Minick says most metal currency developed from objects that were already in use, such as weapons, tools, bracelets and anklets. 'The pieces range in size from small Asante gold weights to large hoes,' he says. 'They can be crude, such as the hoe and weapon forms, or refined and elegant such as Mbole. But they still made them with attention to detail.
'A few, like the Mbole anklets, are still used for ceremonial dances. Ivory is still worn sometimes, but today people have shunned those traditions and follow what's popular around the world.'
'The Mbole bracelets from the Congo are hand-hammered copper, which is native to Zaire or the Congo,' Minicj says. 'The Mbole have mined it for a long time. It was called 'red gold', because it was one of the most valuable metals, and they didn't have gold.'
'Most of the Baule bracelets, from Ivory Coast, are cast bronze. As well, we have a few items from the Akan peoples in Ghana and the Bassa of Liberia.'
Much tribal art from around West Africa is now brought to the port cities because that's where the dealers are. 'I was able to go just to Abidjan, the port city of the Ivory Coast, and find an interesting variety of pieces in the markets,' he says.
'Calculating the worth of such bracelets was complicated, and often based on an early value system inspired by the Portuguese,' he says. 'Mbole bracelets, for example, were valued according to size.'
Minick says early Portuguese explorers in the 1470s soon realised that copper bracelets and leg bands were the principal currency along the coast. So, the Portuguese crown contracted manufacturers to produce crescent bracelets with flared ends that they called 'manilla' - probably named after the Latin words for hand (manus) or necklaces (monilia). 'Manillas were the first true general-purpose currency known in West Africa,' he says.
'Cowrie shells, imported from Melanesia and valued at a fraction of a manilla, were used for small purchases. In regions outside coastal West Africa and the Niger River, a variety of other currencies such as bracelets of more complex domestic design served as special purpose money.'
By the late 1940s, the use of manillas fell away. 'The Portuguese had amassed countless tons of the manillas, which they'd withdrawn from circulation,' he says. 'Paper currencies started to become more widely used.'
NEW COLLECTOR TIPS:
Prices at Tao range from about $350 to $2,500 for a large Mbole. 'Mbole are difficult to come by if you want good forms, nice patina and little damage,' says Minick. 'Because they're handmade, they vary in thickness in some spots, so in transit some have cracked.
'None of them will be scar-free, because they were handmade and they've seen that kind of life,' he says. 'We hear horror stories of housekeepers who have cleaned people's collections or taken a polish to them. There are certain chemicals that will affect the metal pieces. We don't subject them to anything more than a soft brush or cloth to remove dust and dirt, and we let time do the rest.'
Tao Evolution, 62A Peel Street, Central (tel: 2521 1315).