Are you familiar with the Akan peoples? It’s possible that you are more familiar with our cultural contributions than you know. There may be patterns and shapes that you see in everyday life that come from the Akan – and you don’t even realise!
Maybe you have seen images of one of the most famous of all African sculptural forms. It is a handmade, disc-headed wood doll called Akua’ba (pl. Akua’mma). If you love African art and more specifically Akan art, you might know of this statue. Many jewellers have used it as an inspiration for pendants, earrings,
From Sotheby’s website: https://www.sothebys.com/en/buy/auction/2021/arts-dafrique-doceanie-et-des-ameriques/poupee-akwaba-ashanti-ghana-akwaba-doll-ashanti Poupée akwaba, Ashanti, Ghana
haut. 38,5 cm ; 15 1/8 inch, from Paul et Maria Wyss, Bâle, Collection Rosemarie Suzanne Kiefer, Switzerland, bought before 1976, transmitted through heritage.
The Asante (also called Ashanti) is one of the Akan peoples, and the Asante doll’s story is clearly outlined as follows by the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
“The name akua ba comes from the Akan legend of a woman named Akua who was barren, but like all Akan women, she desired most of all to bear children. She consulted a priest who instructed her to commission the carving of a small wooden child and to carry the surrogate child on her back as if it were real. Akua cared for the figure as she would a living baby, even giving it gifts of beads and other trinkets. She was laughed at and teased by fellow villagers, who began to
call the wooden figure Akua ba, or "Akua's child". Eventually though, Akua conceived a child and gave birth to a beautiful baby girl. Soon thereafter, even her detractors began adopting the same practice to overcome barrenness.”
The Museum also explains:
“All genuine Akua ba are female images, primarily because Akua's first child was a girl but also because Akan society is matrilineal, so women prefer female children who will perpetuate the family line...” https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/312279
The Asante doll, Ashanti doll, Fertility doll, Poupée Ashanti (in French) -- these are all the names the statue may be called.
Akan: What does the word itself mean?
Here are some tidbits that may be new to you:
The Akan group or Akan peoples number more than 20 million. They are made up of subgroups in Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana and Togo in West Africa. There are many definitions as to what Akan itself means and the beliefs of the peoples within the Akan group as reported by the authors Niagoran Bouah Georges and René Allou
The first derivation is this. Akan comes from Kan (To Speak).
According to Niangoran Bouah G, a renowned author on the Akan society, this interpretation is because Akan dignitaries always speak through a master spokesman (or spokesperson) named Okyamé. Use of a spokesperson is an
important feature of Akan gatherings of all types.
(On a personal note, when my traditional marriage was happening :a story for another day !, my Akan tribe asked my husband’s family to choose someone in the village to be their spokesperson, as well as my own family, as they shouldn’t be directly addressing each other. How beautiful to keep this tradition going!)
A second derivation of Akan is this: people of civilization (Kaéin). The Akan is an old and highly organised civilisation that should be treated with respect.
For others, this third derivation holds the most significance. Akan may also come from Kann, which means chosen people.
There are more hypotheses about the derivation and meanings of Akan but still no single, uniform definition. For me, all of these interpretations are applicable and meaningful.
Top: Principal Akan ethnicities
Bottom: Principal Akan Towns
From The Akan world of gold weights (Abstract Design Weights) by G. Niangoran-Bouah, NEA, Abidjan 1984.
With internal wars and division dating back to the 18th century, author Niangoran Bouah divides the Akan
in Côte d’Ivoire into 3 groups:
- From the center and border with Ghana:The most renowned in the art world of these peoples are the Agni (or Anyi), Baoulé (or Baule or Wawolè), Yêourê (or Yaourè or Yohourè), and more. Many of their works of art are found in auction houses such as Christies and Sotheby’s.
From the lake regions: Abidji (or enyembe ogbrou) is my tribe name, akye attie, ebrie and several others.
From Ghana: Ashanti (or Asante), the most renowned of the Akan tribes and the most carefully
researched of the Akan. Others are Fante or Fanti and Nzima.
A fourth group would be from Togo: Ewe or Twi
I wanted to give you an idea about the
wide variety of sub-groups in the larger Akan group.
A few more facts
History books explain that slave trade and colonisation had a huge impact on the Akan society. Large forts were established by Europeans in coastal Akan areas, and of course events within these periods of time changed the course of the Akan history.
Elmina fort, in Cape Coast Ghana: the most important route of the Atlantic slave trade, from UNESCO World Heritage Site
Colonial house in Grand Bassam, Côte d'Ivoire, from Levoyageducalao
Another interesting fact is that the Akan are mostly Christians. Even before encountering Europeans, the Akan believed in a supreme God, Onyame, Gnamien, Nyame…as He is called in the different languages, which made it “easy” to embrace the monotheistic Christian religions (Catholicism, Pentecostal…).
Until the next jewellery Akan & Parisian inspired post, be safe.
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