Art in Africa: Sculptures and Art from Ghanaby San Kwadjovie
Every African tradition of sculpture is characterized by its own stylization. Ghana conjures up images of empire and African grandeur. What was Ancient Ghana's sculptural tradition? Even though this is a good topic of discussion, it is fair to say we know very little about the sculptural tradition of that very important period of African history. The dearth of information on this subject is a measure of the type of work that is needed to reconstruct the continent. This article will settle for what constitutes modern Ghana's sculptural traditions.
Migrations into what is modern Ghana resulted partly from the disintegration of a series of empires in the area now known as Senegal, Mali, and Niger. Some historians refer to that area as the Western Sudan. The empire of Ghana was the first in the region. At its core was the Soninke kingdom. The Soninke were masters in the trade of gold which drew Almoravids from North Africa to the region.
Ancient Ghana succumbed to the Almoravids in the eleventh century but left an enduring legacy. When Kwame Nkrumah secured in 1957 the independence of the former British colony of the Gold Coast, the new independent state opted for the name of Ghana to honor the Ancient African empire. However, this naming was more than symbolic. Although modern Ghana was not directly part of the ancient empire by the same name, several kingdoms in the northern part of the newly independent country were ruled by nobles that migrated from the area the ancient empire covered.
The trans-Saharan trade that brought prosperity to the Ancient Empire of Ghana played a role in the development of contacts between the regions of northern modern Ghana and southern modern Ghana. Akan-speaking people moved into the southern part of modern Ghana toward the end of the fifteenth century. The arrival of crops from Southeast Asia and the New World made settling in the forest region possible. At the same time Mande-speaking people started migrating into the northern part of modern Ghana funding the Muslism-influenced states of Gonja, Mamprusi and Dagomba.
Other groups that settled in the forest region are the Ga-Adangbe. The Ewe were not part of the original Gold Coast. They joined the Gold Coast as a result of a referendum in the British-administered section of neighboring country, Togoland. The Ga-Adangbe and Ewe groups do not have distinctive traditions of sculpture. Sculptures originating from the northern region borrow much from the Mande group. Most distinctive styles of sculpture come from the Akan group.
Fertily Dolls Akan sculpture is famous for its stool carvings and fertility dolls. Fertility dolls called Akua-ba are black wooden dolls generally 2 feet high, modeled after the human form. When a woman fears that she might be infertile after trying unsuccessfully herbal treatments, her last resort is to approach a priest at a shrine or temple. She is usually accompanied on such occasions by her mother, aunt, and sister. At the entrance of the shrine, she is to offer a sum of money and an odd number of eggs to the shrine's linguist (okyeame). They are then ushered into the temple. The priest usually questions the woman about her moral dispositions then proceeds with divination. She is told she may have been placed under an evil spell by a rival, or a witch. She may have committed some offences. If the divination does not reveal any of these as the cause of infertility, the priest then asks the woman to get a fertility doll and bring it to the shrine at a specific date.
When the woman comes back to the shrine, the priest performs some rituals and gives the fertility doll back to the woman. The priest also gives her some taboos to handle and some herbs. It is now incumbent upon her to carry the doll wherever she goes and tend to her like a real baby. She will continue this practice until she is pregnant, and in some cases until her delivery period. During pregnancy, the woman is to visit he shrine periodically.
After the birth, the new baby is taken to the shrine after the naming ceremony on the seventh day for a ritual of thanksgiving. To the shrine, the woman offers one sheep, some fowls, and eggs. Children born in these conditions are dedicated to the shrines and their hair must not be cut or combed until they are a certain age, or after a series of rituals.
Ashanti Fertility Dolls Ashanti fertility dolls are characterized by a truncated cylindrical body and a flat circular head. As stated above, the use of fertility dolls has deep spiritual significance and dimension in Akan culture. Just like elsewhere in Africa, the Ashanti culture places a high premium on fecundity. They see fertility as the primary assurance for the continued survival of the Ashanti nation and therefore value it more than any material wealth.
Fanti Fertility Dolls Fanti fertility dolls are characterized by rectangular heads. Fanti fertility dolls may be single dolls or twin dolls. The twin doll is either carved with a boy and a girl or two girls. Twins are believed to be protectors of their families. It is believed that a woman will give birth to twins if she carries a twin doll around while pregnant.
Royal Sculpture In African societies, one of the purposes of sculpture was to enhance and maintain the status of rulers. Stools, swords, staffs, scepters, royal drums, and crowns were insignia of the royal house.
Ashanti stools Wooden stools are one of the most important forms of Ashanti carvings. The Ashanti stool symbolizes power. It goes far beyond its ordinary usage as a wooden seat into matters and rituals closely associated with the Ashanti nation's political and spiritual well being. Each political office has a distinctive stool design that symbolizes the authority of the king, the queen mother, or the chief . Each maternal lineage has a stool that symbolizes its right to land and other property. The stool embodies the souls of the ancestors. During the ritual of installation to office, the new tenant is seated three times briefly on the stool. After the ritual, the stool is stored in a special place and fed annual sacrifices.
Carved Sword Handles Other artifacts associated with royal arts are carved sword handles and staffs. These handles are often covered with gold leaf. The carved staffs are the insignia of the linguists who serve as spokespersons for the authorities.
Akan goldweights are famous for their variety and the proverbs associated with them. Goldweight forms reflect Akan history and life. Their symbolism is linked to Akan thought. Among the most celebrated are goldweights depicting the wisdom knot, the leopard, the hornbill, and the porcupine. Wisdom Knot Proverb: The knot tied by a wiseman cannot be undone by a fool. Interpretation:The leader has a right to his higher position by virtue of his superior wisdom.
The Leopard Proverb: The rain wets the leopard's spots but does not wash them off. Interpretation: The leopard cannot change its spots. Conversely, a man's true nature cannot change.
The Hornbill Caught by a Snake Proverb: Although the snake does not fly, it has caught the hornbill, whose is in the sky. Interpretation: According to Akan legend, the hornbill was deeply indebted to the snake but it refused to pay its debts because it thought it could always escape if the snake tried to catch it. The bird enjoyed its freedom until it got careless one day and the snake which had been observing quietly and patiently for the right opportunity caught it. This proverb celebrates patience as a virtue.
The Porcupine Proverb: One should never rub bottoms with a porcupine. Interpretation: You should never get into a fight with someone who has more power.