Creating Currency

Artist unknown (Sara-Madjingaye peoples, Chad)
Throwing knife-shaped currencies (kuur), late 19th to early 20th century
Fowler Museum at UCLA, X2014.40.25, X2014.40.26; Gift of Dr. Allen Roberts and Dr. Mary Roberts

About the Artwork

Iron currency tokens are among the most compelling and virtuosic of sub-Saharan blacksmiths’ designs. The shapes of precolonial currency tokens were often derived from blade forms of tools and weapons. These tokens were used as payment in the exchanges that mattered most in life: marriage; legal proceedings; ransom of battle captives; and the purchase of horses, enslaved persons, and other prized commodities.

Currency forms were produced throughout the African continent, most often as bars or blades at sizes suitable to being exchanged in small bundles. The Sara-Madjingaye smiths who forged these throwing knife-shaped currencies were adapting the design from the sacred knife called Miya-bo, owned by Sara Madjingaye’s Supreme Being, who used it to bring rains. The value of these fragile, human-like forms comes from their use in battle and religious beliefs.

Design Your Own Currency

Money comes in many different shapes and sizes, depending on where you are in the world. There are two types of money: general purpose and special purpose. General purpose money can be readily exchanged as you move from one country to another, such as exchanging an American $20 bill into Indian rupees or Japanese yen. Special purpose money does not look like general purpose money, as it might be too large to easily carry or used only for purchasing specific items.

Consider the advantages of both general purpose and special purpose money. Now imagine that you are able to create your very own type of currency, and it can be used for whatever you want.

  • What would it look like?
  • What would it be able to purchase?
  • Sketch your currency’s design and write 3-5 sentences explaining its value.