Kingdom of Gold: Photographs of Ghana
Thru May 15
Houston Museum of African American Culture
4807 Caroline St
Many ideas and images are conjured up when one thinks of the African continent, but international exporter of gold usually isn’t foremost among them. But in fact Europeans were trading gold from Ghana as early as the 1300s. In March 2000, globe-trotting photographer Ellen Kaplowitz photographed the enstoolment (or enthronement) of Asantehene Otumfuo Osei Tutu II, the sixteenth monarch of the Ashanti Kingdom. The Houston Museum of African American Culture presents the images she captured of the celebration and contemporary city life in Kingdom of Gold: Photographs of Ghana.
There certainly is gold in the thirty or so photographs that make up Kaplowitz’s visual essay, but what is revealed through her colorful compositions is that Ghana is blessed with more than just a decorative raw material; it’s a kingdom rich in culture, tradition, and beaming smiles. Several of her photos are taken from the Castle of St. George, better known as Elmina Castle. Her lens looks out of its high windows onto the streets below, or more strikingly, the ocean waves filled with fishermen at work or children at play.
The castle was one of the first trading points in the region, and continues to be a central axis of daily activity, but the weather-worn building has a much more sinister past, as captured in “Gate of No Return.” Elmina eventually came to be a major departure point for the African slave trade; people from all over the coast spent their days on native soil in the dungeons below before passing through the gate to ships bound for the Americas.
The coastal castle photographs are appropriately dark and overcast, saturated in the moody colors of the ocean, but Kaplowitz’s work gets incrementally brighter as it approaches her key subject. Her most sophisticated compositions may very well be “Girl in Kumasi” and “Mother and Child.” In the first, a young girl leans against a wall and smiles away from the camera. The subject here seems to be the rich color palette, as the yellow of the girl’s dress, the pink of the stucco, and the green of a wooden door frame create a vibrant image void of the dark history of the earlier photos. In “Mother and Child,” Kaplowitz presents the gorgeous raven skin of her two subjects set against the intricate fabric of their dress. The texture of the patterns is so vividly rendered that one can imagine the feel of the cloth.
The power of Kaplowitz’s work is her ability to conflate the traditional and the contemporary within one frame. In “Woman Dancing in the Crowd,” one of the hundreds of observers moves to the drums with abandon. She is dressed in red and black as a symbol of mourning for the previous king, but her spirit is filled with joy in anticipation of a new reign. Dozens of women watch her, including one wearing a pair of sunglasses. It’s a comical reminder that the traditions of centuries past are still alive, but in a thoroughly modern world.