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Author: Daniel Mato
Title: Clothed in symbols: wearing proverbs
Publication info: Ann Arbor, Michigan: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library

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Source: Clothed in symbols: wearing proverbs
Daniel Mato

Evanston, IL: Program of African Studies, Northwestern University
no. 7, pp. 4-5, 9, 11-12, 1994
Issue title: Institute for Advanced Study and Research in the African Humanities: Texts in Objects
Author Biography: Daniel Mato is a member of the Department of Art at the University of Calgary, Alberta, Canada.

Clothed in symbols: wearing proverbs


Much of Akan ritual practice, religious activity, social life, and art is directed towards funerary ceremonies and observances. Death and life are acknowledged and celebrated through ritualized behavior, stylized art forms, and full community participation. Funerals are occasions for deep sorrow and celebration as they recognize that the death was not only the ending of an individual's life but a reaffirmation of the life of the family and continuity of the community. This prominence of funerals was noted by the first European visitors and continued to be recorded by subsequent observers up to the present. Intriguingly, a number of these early comments on Akan funerals could serve today to describe aspects of present funerary activities (deMarees 1604, Bosman 1705, Atkins 1735, Bowdich 1819, Cruickshank 1853, MacDonald 1898). Descriptions of more recent Akan funerals and burial practices have been recorded by a number of authors and need not be given here in detail (see Rattray 1927, Nketia 1955, Antubam 1963, Denteh 1975, Bellis 1982, Mato 1987 et al.).

Families will acknowledge the recently deceased during ceremonies of remembrance held on the eighth day (nawotwe da) after death with dancing and wearing of "funeral cloths." Other rituals take place forty (adaduanan) and eighty (adadutwe) days after death with an important ceremony one year later (afehyia da). Important ceremonies of remembrance are also regularly held in the community to celebrate not only those recently deceased but to honor all those who have died (owuofo). These take place every forty days (adae or kwasidae) with a major country-wide ceremony (odwira) held yearly.

Funerals and later ceremonies of remembrance (ayie pa) are prescribed to follow established protocols of behavior and conduct in order to insure their success as a rite of passage and as a "social event." Funerals among the Akan have considerable communal prestige so that they are not only measured as ritual process but also as public display. The proper conduct of a funeral acknowledges established social and ritual protocols and must reflect appropriate artistic and aesthetic concerns so that ceremonies will not only be measured by their content, but could be equally compromised by not being well done. As was stated at a funeral: Se fun nya asoayia a, nna ototo no kon, or "A decent funeral procession is in itself a tribute to the success of the funeral of the deceased" (collected in Kumasi 1988, see also Rattray 1916: No. 452). The social component is acknowledged by people who will ask when discussing a funeral: "Were there many in attendance, was there much to drink, was there much singing and music for dancing? Were the funerary gifts for the deceased sufficient and did the family receive donations to defray the cost of the funeral?" A family's prestige was at risk if the local community did not think that appropriate efforts had been made to "send the dead off in style" or if those attending were not "treated properly." Attendance at a funeral is a matter of paying respect to the deceased and their family as well as being a major social occasion. People attending will wear appropriate funerary cloths and contribute to help the family pay for the funeral, for which they are publicly acknowledged and given receipts. Those attending will also expect to be entertained with music, dancing, and refreshments to lighten the day.

Funerals serve to recognize the fact that the deceased was not only a member of a complex structure of lineage relationships but also a member of the local community. Much of Akan ritual and ceremonial life is open to public demonstration and communal participation; their highly visible funerals are occasions not only for the expression of sorrow but equally opportunities for socializing with family and friends. It is an occasion of celebration as well as sadness and is aptly summed up by Field in her observation that: "At no time in a person's life is he as sociable as at death" (1948: 138). The funeral of an Akan adult sets into motion ceremonial and ritual activities which express personal and communal loss and allow the common sharing of grief while celebrating the advancement of a new ancestor through a collective feeling of community.

Akan funerals are not only a rite of passage during which the deceased is mourned through highly ritualized displays of grief and loss, but are also the occasion for the appearance of a number of different art forms which state and confirm relationships among the living while honoring the dead. These specialized funerary arts are the instruments whereby contact is established with the new ancestor(s) (saman(fo)) and through which people can express their familial and lineage relationships to the deceased. One's rank and status within one's lineage and concurrently one's position within the political and social structure of the community will be reflected in the arts displayed during funerals and subsequent ceremonies of remembrance. Akan funerary arts are closely associated to cosmological and religious beliefs and are shaped to reflect views of life and the afterlife, as literal and symbolic references are made to principles and deities.

The public proclamation of a death initiates a period of mourning and concurrently the first appearance of funerary arts. Funerals are publicly active and communally experienced; they continue from the announcement of the death through the burial (detie yie) and during later ceremonies of remembrance. It is a complex period of activity which may appear to be tumultuous and unorganized to "European" eyes (deMarees 1600: 343; Bosman 1705: 364; Atkins 1735: 105; Bowdich 1819: 284 et al.). However seemingly disjointed, each of the funerary activities has its place in a coordinated and traditional scheme of appearance which allows and encourages spontaneous demonstration of grief and sorrow. Drumming and dancing, the presentation of symbolic gestures by individuals, the singing of dirges and laments are art forms which incorporate social participation on the broadest scale. These active and transitory art forms known as anigyedee have their "existence" while they are performed by family and friends. The materially permanent funerary arts of the Akan are well known; they include ritual pottery (abusua kuruwa), terracotta figures (nsodia or sempon), figurative smoking pipes (ebua) and the various cloths worn especially during this time. Personal objects of everyday use such as stools, toilet articles, family heirlooms, and possessions of the deceased may also be included as funerary goods and presented at the time of burial. The recitation of proverbs (ebe or mmebusem) and aphorisms appropriate to Akan ideas regarding life, death, and the afterlife are often stated during funerals and subsequent ceremonies of remembrance. They will be voiced by individuals who may spontaneously declaim a proverb with related gestures or be sung by a group of mourning women. They are now even worn as T-shirts and head bands at funerals. Proverbs and aphorisms will often have as subject matter themes which refer to human mortality and the universality of death:

Owuo see fie—"Death spoils the house"

Owuo begya hwan—"Whom will death spare"

Owu adare nna fako—"Death's sickle does not reap in one place alone"

Obi nim nea owu wo a, anka onsi ho ara da—"If one knew where death resided one would never stop there"

Closely allied to the verbally stated proverbs, physically displayed symbolic gestures depict proverbial statements in visual form. Proverbs and aphorisms take on added weight of meaning reinforced through body movement, expressive stance or gesture. The physical gesture is closely allied to its verbal component by restating the expressed sentiment or proverb in tangible, physical form. As McLeod has noted, what occurs is "... conjunction of, or an interaction between, two different modes of communication: the verbal and the physical" (1976:92). A simple gesture or body position may have a number of proverbial analogues to it. For example at the time of the funeral or lying-in-state, one will often see individuals, with their hands clasped on the top of their heads, declaiming: Ahia me o, aka menko o!—"I am left alone, I am cast away thirsty and hungry!" Others may stretch their arms towards the deceased and state: San bra—"Do come back!"; or they may simply extend arms and show fingers in a 'V' towards the deceased (collected in Kumasi 1988 and Assamang 1992). There is a direct connection between proverb and gesture in these two cases while other symbolic gestures will be more open-ended. For example the gesture of the arms crossed over the chest with the hands resting on the shoulders may have any of the following proverbial associations:

Mafo ma awo ade me—"I am wet and feeling cold"

Osu kese bi ato aboro me—"A great rain has fallen and soaked me"

Mennya gya na m'ato bio—"I am forever deprived of the fire that warmed me"

There are a number of symbolic gestures in common use which are also found sculpted in clay as individual figures or attached to funerary clay pots known as abusua kuruwa. These pots are often embellished with symbolic motifs which have cognates in the stamped motifs found on the various funerary cloths. Other objects demonstrate this tendency towards the visualization of proverb in material form. The well known goldweights, linguist's staffs, umbrella finials, as well as figural embellishments of swords and stools act as carriers of symbolic form with associated proverbs or statements. As has been often noted, proverb and visual symbol are ubiquitous in Akan art. They are the means whereby a statement of fact or principle or a comment upon the human condition is given visual form and context. It is through this unique alliance of verbal-visual elements that the Akan state the "concrete and abstract" (McLeod 1976:9, see also Cole and Ross 1977).

The idea of a verbal/visual/symbolic literacy emerges from the cultural nexus of Akan society in which all are to some degree versed in the proverbs, symbols, and traditional lore of the society. Among the Akan, one's wisdom and the ability to present an argument, debate in public or at court, or to give opinion upon any issue is gauged by the ability to draw upon proverbs to support or make a case. This is often done by literally stacking individual and different proverbs to make a point. The importance of the spoken word in a non-literate society allied to an ability to draw upon the traditional wisdom of proverbial lore raises ordinary discourse to an elegant art form of poetic dimension and metaphorical subtlety.

When a proverb is supported by a visual image its metaphorical meaning is reinforced and literally raised to another level of subtlety and discourse. Inasmuch as the visual symbol can only be identified through its associated proverb or verbal element, it assumes the ability to apply the appropriate proverb to the particular situation. This process of interrelationship and dependence is to bring the weight of traditional wisdom, law, and precedent—characterized through an allusive structure of parallel metaphors—to address situations or circumstances which may not be addressed directly or are of too sensitive a nature for direct comment. Akans will also seek to address sensitive issues obliquely through the use of parables in speech or by some mode of symbolic display, rather than confront them directly. For example when referring to the death of a king one might say: "The king has gone to his village," or "a mighty tree has fallen," or "he has fallen asleep" rather than state the fact directly (interviews with Okyeame Bafour Osei Akoto and Okyeame Bafour Boasiako). Many adinkra stamps work with the same process inasmuch as they will present the viewer with a symbol and it is left to the viewer's knowledge and sophistication to apply it to any number of possible circumstances. Visual symbols, as proverbs, are contextually directed inasmuch as they are perceived as a single motif with the potential for interpretation on a number of levels. Therefore, when looking at an adinkra symbol one may be interpreting only the most obvious proverbial association and missing a number of other symbolic allusions. This, however, also allows the opportunity for the viewer to interact with the stamped symbol and to choose the proverb or parable he thinks appropriate.

It is an everyday experience in Akan towns and villages to see individuals going to or returning from a funeral wearing some form of funerary cloth. The wearing of special raiment or funerary attire by mourners during funeral ceremonies is an extension of the idea of communal participation through public display. Traditionally the wearing of colored funerary cloths known as ayitoma (funeral cloth) or akonini ntoma ("cloth for the strong heart") was coded to the cycle of the funeral and would indicate the relationship of the mourner to the deceased and their standing within the family lineage (abusua).

These various cloths are described as follows: kuntunkuni, a deep russet-brown cloth was customarily worn by the abusua panyin (lineage elder) and close family members the first day after death and often through the burial. Traditionally kuntunkuni cloths are older cloths and often frayed, in some instances previously stamped cloths which have become soiled and have been redyed. As was stated: "The older and more worn the cloth the more it would indicate their loss and grief" (collected in Kumasi, 1988). A favorite cloth for dyeing as kuntunkuni are old cocoa bean sacks which may bear some resemblance to the old bark cloth (kyenkyen) which served as funerary dress. This was said to reflect that one "had been 'made poor' or impoverished by the loss of the family member." Dark red or vermilion cloths (kobene) would be worn by relatives, friends, and neighbors during the funerals and frequently by all mourners during later memorial ceremonies. Today kobene is the most predominant cloth visible at funerals. In some Asante areas of central Ghana, a dark blue-black cloth known as birisi will be worn by the widow and immediate family through the funeral and subsequent memorial ceremonies held forty days after burial. For women this will include the wearing of an upper garment in red (dansekra) with a black or dark skirt. Birisi may have two levels of appearance, for it will be worn at funerals as a simple dark cloth whereas at later memorial ceremonies (ayie) it may appear stamped with symbolic motifs. These motifs, known as adinkra, also lend their name to the cloths upon which they are stamped so that when one refers to adinkra it may not only refer to the individual (stamped) motif but equally to the cloth which has been stamped. For elders of great age white cloths (fututum or tutum) will be worn to celebrate their deaths.

Symbolic motifs had been traditionally stamped on the so called "dark cloths" known as kuntunkuni or birisi. The fact that dark symbolic images would be stamped on dark cloths may comment upon a level of subtlety not yet perceived or fully understood by the non-Akan observer as adinkra stamps with their specific identities are carried on a colored cloth with broad collective associations. Adinkra images and symbols draw upon the same symbol pool found deeply fixed throughout Akan culture and expressed in all of their arts, permanent and transitory. Adinkra symbols are a complex interplay of the visualization of proverbs, moral maxims, and popular sayings. Some stamps are self-evident in their meanings through visual alliance to their associated parable or verbal analogy while others are more removed and often abstractly distant. Stamped adinkra images embody principles of behavior, and contain homilies or maxims characterizing man's relationships in the face of life's shortness and unpredictability. They comment upon the family or the structure of society or refer to historical events. A number of stamps can be described as royal regalia in that they are conditionally reserved for use as a component of statecraft. Certain adinkra stamps would be included as a element of the king's own royal regalia whose associated proverb would be associated to kingship.

Some stamps appear more often than others, some have fallen out of favor, while others, newly created, are added to the adinkra symbol pool for their uniqueness of design to which established proverbs are attached. Though certain older stamps may not be popularly used today they are not forgotten and are as valued as stamps which are newer and possibly more evident. Many adinkra stamps depict commonplace objects that have been given symbolic value applied to everyday experience or royal statement. Newly carved stamps comment upon political events of the past and present while others are created to serve a more fashionable trade with the growing social (non-funerary) wearing of adinkra cloths (known as kwasidae or Sunday cloths). This addition of new stamps to the "symbol pool" and the increasing use of adinkra cloths for purely social occasions reflects the elasticity and resilience of Akan art and culture in its ability to meet the changing contemporary world while drawing upon a heritage of tradition.

Adinkra stamped cloths are some of the earliest examples of textile art documented from all of West Africa. Thomas Bowdich, a British envoy to the King of the Asante in 1817, commented upon the wearing of "fetish" cloths or stamped adinkra cloth while residing in Kumasi. Sometime during the year of 1817, he in fact commissioned an adinkra cloth to be stamped for the collection of the British Museum in London where it is today (British Museum no. WA-22, see Bowdich 1819: 310). A few years later in 1826, the resident Dutch governor of a fort on the Guinea Coast commissioned an adinkra cloth to be made to be presented to the Dutch King. The cloth was made as a traditionally stamped adinkra cloth; however an embellishment was added which included a rather crudely painted Royal Coat of Arms of the Royal House as a central device. This cloth was originally presented to the Court in Holland and is now in the collection of the Rijksmuseum voor Volkenkunde, Leiden (#360-1700).

These dates of 1817 and 1826 point to a fully developed usage of adinkra, including a number of documented motifs still in use today. The date of 1817, however, is at some variance with the traditional accounting of how the practice of adinkra came to the Asante. Local oral histories state that the use of adinkra came to Asante as a result of a war between the kingdoms of Asante and Gyman whose king was said to be wearing an adinkra cloth when he was defeated and killed sometime between 1818-20. The defeated king's name in fact was Kofi Adinkra and one of the most famous adinkra symbols, known simply as adinkra, is said to have been worn by him. So according to local traditions, adinkra did not arrive among the Asante until after the war of 1818-20; however the cloth collected by Bowdich dates to 1817, therefore predating the traditional date of its appearance. Recent field work suggests that this traditional oral history is taken more as an explanation of how the techniques of making adinkra came to Asante rather than the use of the symbol-stamped cloth itself. The techniques of cloth stamping are said to have been brought to Asante through the knowledge of the son of King Adinkra who was also captured during this struggle and today has a stamp named after him adinkra ba apau—"Adinkra's son" (Interviews with Nana Akwesi Mensa, Odikro of Asokwa and Abanasehene Nana Asafo Agyi II). There have been oral histories collected at Manhyia Palace in Kumasi which discuss the use of adinkra cloth at Court during the 1700s, so that it could be argued that the tradition was most probably in place sometime during this time (Okyeame Bafour Osei Akoto and Abanasehene Nana Asafo Agyi II).

Though primarily identified with funerary cloths, it is surprising that only a few adinkra symbols with their associated proverbs or aphorisms allude directly to death. These symbolic allusions may be direct or oblique depending upon the symbol or metaphor being addressed. An example of direct reference is the well-known "ladder of death": Owuo atwedee baako mmforo, obiara bewu—"All men will climb the ladder of death." (The image of the ladder is also found worked on clay funerary pots, as well as on the bronze gold dust containers and on the bronze weights used in the weighing of gold.) There is a modern adinkra stamp which has the depiction of a skull on it with the associated statement: Owuo begya hwan—"Whom will death spare." Another example of the stamped skull has the phrase Owuo see fie—"Death breaks the house." A new stamp, carved in 1992 by Joseph Nsiah in Ntonso, has death as its topic: Kotonkrowei da amansa kon mu—"If death holds you by the neck surely it will carry you away." It is only now coming into use.

Adinkra stamped symbols will address the insecurities and stresses of life with injunctions such as: Daben na me nsorama bepue—"When will my star change!" or Atamfo atwa me ho ahyia— "My enemies surround me." Symbols will set precepts for behavior as well as recognizing individual responsibility: Obra tese ahwehwe—"Life is like a mirror (not only is it fragile but it reflects one's character)." The well known image Sankofa—"the chicken looking over its back"—is an injunction to balanced and responsible behavior. Proverbial admonition symbolically states balance and peaceful intent through forms known in other uses as motifs for linguists' staffs or umbrella finials: Kosua—"The hand holding the egg" and Ekaa akyekyedee nko a nka etuo nto kwae mu da—"Left to the tortoise alone there will not be any shoots in the forest." Adinkra symbols also reflect the pragmatism of Akan society to correct behavior and to be able to meet the demands of life's situations: Sesa wo suban—"Change your life" or Nkyinkyin—"Twisted patterns, changing oneself, being able to play many roles."

There is evidence to indicate that the wearing of adinkra cloths was once a "royal" prerogative and that through a process not yet fully described adinkra came down to the general populace during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, becoming incorporated as an element of general Akan funerary usage (interviews with Okyeame Bafour Osei Akoto, Okyeame Bafour Anti Boasiako, Abanasehene Nana Asafo Agyi II, and Nana Akwesi Mensa, Odikro of Asokwa). Stamped adinkra cloths are worn by the King during the weekly sessions at Court when the state council, the Asanteman, meets on Mondays and Thursdays and when he holds public sittings on Saturdays. When meetings of the state council are in session at Manhyia Palace, members of the Asanteman wear dark cloths (birisi) which are often stamped. This reflects the seriousness of the meetings and the responsibility of those in attendance. Royal precedence is reflected in a protocol at the Court in Kumasi which forbids wearing the same adinkra symbol as the Asantehene when sitting in state. To do so would seem to be a challenge to the King leading to an awkward if not intolerable situation.

It is during these meetings that the King will not only wear stamped adinkra cloths but, depending upon the gravity of the meeting, a cloth calligraphically inscribed with suras or protective verses from the Koran: Nsumankwahene Nana Domfeh Gyeabor. This protective cloth is also known as an adinkra symbol: Hyewo a enhye—"I burn but do not burn (it is fireproof, literally against others' magic)." Early use of Islamic cloths comes from a description provided by Dupuis when visiting Kumasi in 1820 as he records the King's wearing "a large white cotton cloth which partly covered his left shoulder, was studded all over with Arabic writings in various colored inks, and of a most brilliant well formed color" (1824: 142).

If it is a meeting of extreme gravity to discuss, for example, the possibility of war, the King would wear a dark brown kuntunkuni cloth known as (A)pese Ntowma, which has twigs of the (A)pese tree stuck into it. The Chief Priest for Asante, the Nsumankwahene, stated that he had calligraphically inscribed cloths to wear for protection when he met with other priests. He also had a large umbrella (kyini) stamped with the adinkra symbols Etuo (Rifle) and Afena (Crossed Swords) that was held over him at state functions to protect him. Another cloth, worn by a royal in the area of Tewobaabi, has porcupine quills set in a design pattern on a dark cloth worn when "serious things are spoken of at the local court" (Nana Kwaku Dua II, Tewobaabi). He also commissioned cloths inscribed with Islamic calligraphy known as Nsebeon Ntowma from a local Moslem cleric in Ntonso. In fact he has started a shop in which adinkra, inscribed cloths, and Islamic amulets (suman or nsebe) are sold to a ready market.

Cloths in fact are chosen for the King to wear with particular emphasis upon the appropriate symbol for a specific occasion or ceremony as an aspect of polity and statecraft. This selection is done by the Abanasehene. These adinkra images would proclaim the strength or power of the King, and therefore of the kingdom, which would be seen and understood by visually and proverbially literate viewers and especially by those visiting the royal courts upon diplomatic missions. Adinkra symbols worn by the King serve as visual validation of his authority and claim to power. The symbol Aban—"The King's house"—worn at Court refers to the stone house built by Osei Bonsu I (1802-23) and has come to symbolize royal power, authority, and wealth. The Aban was the first two-storey stone house in Kumasi and became the repository for objects, gifts, and the King's clothes under direction of the Abanasehene (Abanasehene Nana Asafo Agyi II). A number of the stamps argue the peaceful intent of the King, but also the ability to meet any threat once aroused. Allusion to nature is often metonymically at play in the use of symbols on the king's cloth when for example the adinkra symbol known as Okoto—"The Crab"—is stamped. The meaning is that it is difficult to draw a crab out of its hole, but once out it fights with total commitment and ferocity. The stamped symbol Obi nka bi—"I offend no one without provocation"—argues the King's inherent peacefulness. Once aroused, however, the King is to be highly feared as projected through the image of Odenkyam—"The Crocodile," worn during time of war and strife. The adinkra stamp of crossed swords, Afena, or of the king's rifle, Ohene Tuo, or of a sword and rifle crossed are direct references to his might. A number of symbols have specific references to victories gained by the King, the most well known being the adinkrahene—"Taken from the cloth worn by the defeated Gymanhene Kofi adinkra." It is also known as the "king of the adinkra stamps."

There are certain symbols which were traditionally reserved to the King. In the past they included adinkrahene—"The king of stamps" and Osono—"The Elephant"—among others. A new stamp carved in 1992 is coming into use in the direct portrayal of royal regalia: Ohene Kyini—"The king's umbrella." This follows the use of the state sword (Afena) as a chiefly symbol already in use for some time. Data recently collected records that each king would have a stamp carved which was to state in graphic form those attributes or characteristics he wished to be known by and which became identified to his reign (collected in Kumasi 1988, Asokwa 1992). These stamps are rarely worn publicly. One of these stamps indicates the strength, power, and wiliness of the King: Osono tia afidie so a enhwan—"When the elephant steps on the trap it does not spring." This is an allusion to the idea that a great man's troubles are dealt with so quietly that few are aware of it. It is therefore apparent that when dealing with adinkra as a means of political discourse, visual and proverbial wisdom are required to participate in and fully understand a system of symbolic interchange of subtlety and multilayered textures.

Historical anecdotes or observed situations are subject for symbol and metaphor. Gyau Atiko describes a particular style of hair pattern used as an adinkra stamp. It is drawn from historical fact for it refers to an event which occurred during the Gyman-Asante war when the Asantehene asked for the Bantama war leader, Gyau Atiko. The King was informed that Gyau Atiko had rushed so quickly to battle that all that was seen was the back of his head. Later Gyau Atiko wore this pattern of haircut during an adae ceremony. Not only did this indicate his bravery but equally his initiative. Another popular adinkra stamp often seen is Nkotimsefuopua—"The eagle's talons." It represented a design cut into the hair of the young girls who served the Queen Mother (Ahemaa) in her court. There is a corollary for this stamp relating to the servants of the Queen who are to exercise their duties and "Don't speak back!" So the symbol is not only a badge of office but equally an injunction to carry out their duties without question. This is extended to the general population so that when a superior tells one to do something they are to do it without question or argument.

The various people of central Ghana today have a marvelously developed system of visual symbolic communication associated with a rich oral tradition. However in the past they were a society with no written language. There is therefore some question as to the development and incorporation of stamped graphic images among the "non-writing" Akan. With this in mind the most commonly ascribed source for writing or the use of graphic images on cloth has been the Moslems of the northern part of Ghana. Trade with the Islamized north, prior to and after consolidation of the Asante state, carried with it Islamic culture as well as goods. Trade routes to the north which were travelled as early as the fourteenth century grew into a complex network of interchange by the time of the consolidation of the Asante kingdom (Wilks 1971: 381). Major centers of trade became sources not only for goods but equally for Islamic civilization, for the Moslems were active proselytizers of their faith and disseminators of culture. By the eighteenth century Moslems were at the royal court of the King in Kumasi as advisors and record keepers and were involved in the trade and politics of the Asante nation (see Wilks 1961, 1971). Under the Moslems the northern towns became major centers for the production of cloth and provided cloths to the Royal Court in Kumasi. There was also in Kumasi and elsewhere brasswork from North Africa with Arabic "kufic" script worked onto the surfaces into near abstract patterns (see Silverman 1985). Some of the design patterns found on these bronze vessels can be found in adinkra stamps.

The elegant shapes and nearly abstract forms of Islamic calligraphy can be appreciated for their purely graphic imagery. Literally the "words of God" from the hand-written Koran are appreciated as much for their sense of design as their religiosity. Non-Moslem Akan incorporated verses (suras) from the Koran—either as magical or protective formulas—which would be written on small pieces of paper and often wrapped in leather to serve as amuletic packets, or the small pieces of paper would be actually tied to a man's gown. It becomes clear that what was important to the illiterate viewer was the Islamic graphic image to which a meaning would be given consistent with Akan beliefs and principles. Therefore this belief in the "magic of the mark" as much as its textual meaning perhaps led to the development of the use of the stamped graphic image with an Akan subtext; the proverb: the maxim or homily.

The position held by a number of writers regarding the source and dominant influence upon the use and history of adinkra can be best summed by McLeod's statement that: "These adinkra cloths seem originally to have been imported from the north, and the patterns upon them may ultimately derive from Islamic writing" (1981: 150). There is support for this thesis and the so called "northern connection" with Islamic culture through the use of adinkra stamps whose proverbs or associated saying are directly related to Moslems sources. These include the Nyansoa po—"Moslem's Knot of Wisdom," Nkrado—"The Moslem's Lock," Nsaa —"A Northern textile Pattern." There are a number of stamps whose design is based upon Islamic sources with Akan proverbs assigned to them.

Cloths covered with Moslem script were worn in the past and continue to be worn today by priests and royals for protection and power and to proclaim their faith in that power in a public manner. Moslem clerics continue to write charms for the Asantehene today under direction of the Chief Priest of Asante (Abanasehene Nana Asafo Agyi II, July 16, 1992). Bravmann describes this balance of message with its visual carrier: "African aesthetic sensibility merges everywhere with the literary and graphic potential of Islam, bringing a particular stability and form to God's words" (1983: 19). It is this capacity for giving the verbal statement visual form that adinkra shares in principle with Islamic forms. Yet it is important to keep a balance of the assimilated Moslem graphic images with Akan elements, for the imported Moslem forms were applied to already established Akan proverbs. Thus it can be argued that adinkra motifs balance the verbal statement and the visual image to characterize complex thoughts through simple visual forms. It is an example of the ability of the Asante/Akan to assimilate external influences and produce a hybrid that is more than the mere sum of the constituent elements.

The growing popularity of adinkra has evolved to the point where the wearing of stamped cloths upon non-funerary occasions becomes a common experience. Stamped cloths may be worn at parties, social gatherings, or merely for "show," or for going to church on Sunday. This new use of adinkra has been given a name: when cloths are destined for social wear, they are now called kwasidae—"Sunday cloth." Increased use of adinkra cloths has led to increasing acceptance of industrially produced factory stamped cloths. They replicate traditional adinkra motifs and symbols but are printed with commercial dye so that they do not fade and can be washed without losing the image. This social use of adinkra has led to other changes, so today it is not uncommon to see non-traditional and gaily-colored green, yellow, and even plaid cloths being stamped. Fashion also appears to play an increasing new role in the use of adinkra cloth. Stamped funerary cloths are mainly worn by men at funerals while women wear the unstamped dansekra and skirt (red top and black skirt). There has been an increased tendency over the last few years for women to wear tailored dresses made out of stamped adinkra or factory stamped cloth. Here again the idea of the unity or identity of the abusua (matrilineage) is conveyed by the wearing of a common symbol or motif, often tailored in a similar style of dress. Symbolic display, familial alliance, and fashion are fused through new senses of dress and design. There is an additional interesting and somewhat disquieting observation to be made in that as the wearing of adinkra cloths becomes more popular, those who wear them are unfamiliar with most of the symbols and do not know most of the associated proverbs or sayings. Also as more cloth is stamped for purely secular use, fewer of the cloth stampers (who are increasingly young men working part-time) know the associated proverbs and one must again turn to the few elders for information.

A number of recently developed adinkra stamps address the issue of death directly and in non-symbolic imagery as stamps have been carved with "Western style" written texts in lieu of a stamped image to display the proverb. These new textual adinkra stamps will state in written form:

Owuo begya hwan—"Whom will death spare"

Omipa bewu sika te ase—"People will die but money will live"

Asem pa asa—"Goodness has no rewards"

Nseu adgere yen—"We are flooded in tears"

The use of a written text in place of the stamped image reflects the growing literacy and comfort of the population with the written word as an adjunct to abstracted visual images of traditional usage. This transfer from the visual to the textual occurs in the transfer from symbolic motif to written text in the case of the adinkra stamp: Ekaa nsee nkoa, the proverb being: "If it were left to nsee alone the tree would die." (The woodpecker (nsee) can only live in the dead onyina tree where it hollows out its nest). Both a symbol and text, it has the same meaning but obviously the form of the proverb has changed. Unfortunately, as a number of recent interviews recorded (1988-1992), it also reflects the loss of what can be described as an Akan symbolic literacy. As was observed by a number of senior cloth stampers and carvers, "People go to school and they learn how to read and forget adinkra and their meanings" (Joseph Nsiah and Nana Kwasei Tawiah at Ntonso). The use of western text for adinkra stamps dates at least to the 1940s if not earlier, when a factory-made cloth was stamped with letters ABCD. Not only was it familiar to the literate purchaser, but, purchased in quantity, it would be worn by women to funerals and thereby indicate their being members of the same family! The use of text in adinkra reflects an interactive dynamic that allows stamp carvers and cloth stampers to exercise artistic imagination, as well as to respond to market forces in a search for new and prominent images to make cloths more saleable.

Modern politics with parties, platforms, and emblems also find a place in the development of adinkra symbols. During the first independent government in 1957, under Kwame Nkrumah, an adinkra stamp based upon a well known proverb became the Convention People's Party symbol. The symbol was of a rooster— Akokonini—and the associated proverb stated Akokoberee nim adekye na ohwe onini ano—"The hen knows the hours of the day, but it watches for the announcement of them from the cock who has to crow." What better metaphor for the leader of a political party and the nation! When a new government came into power in 1969, an adinkra symbol was also carved to reflect changing views: Owia apue esunu—"The sun finally appears." But perhaps the experiences of the last decades have tempered ambitions and beliefs in promises with some cynicism, for the same adinkra symbol now is titled: Ebi te yie—"Some sit better." During the run-up period to the election of 1992, when political parties were forming, there were numerous symbols appropriated from the corpus of adinkra motifs. Well known symbols such as the umbrella, elephant, eagle, and the hen with her chicks served to give visual, graphic identity to new political parties. They served to easily identify the party through the use of well known symbols and associated proverbs and to direct the non-literate in their support and ultimately their vote.

Death symbols, proverbs, and economics can interact, for when Ghana shifted over to driving on the right side of the road as opposed to the British system of driving on the left on August 4, 1974, it obviously led to an extended period of confusion as well as a substantial number of accidents. This lead to a popular new adinkra stamp known as: Steer (na) bekum driver—"It was the steering wheel which killed the driver." The accident rate today is only slightly less, but the stamp is still in use with a new title created by the market women to make the cloth more saleable. It is now stylishly known as "Mercedes" or simply "Benz."

There was in the past a large lighted sign in Kumasi for the United Africa Company, which was a popular place for people to meet and talk in the evening. Sometime in the late 1950s a stamp carver in Asokwa drew upon this non-Akan but popular element to serve as subject for a stamp known as U.A.C. Kanea—"U.A.C. Light," literally "meet me under the U.A.C. Light." Other stamped symbols or iconic motifs used today include "Benz," the "VW" emblem, and the radiator emblem of Bristol trucks. Bottles, flags, maps, advertising logos, book covers, and the symbol of the World Food Program which was taken off of a tin of tuna donated by Japan, are now apt sources for adinkra stamps. This creation of new stamps raises interesting questions of cultural dynamics as proverbs are either created or reassigned to serve the past in meeting the present.

Yet there are positive aspects to these new appearances of adinkra as individuals seek to wear cloths which are part of their heritage and thereby keep the tradition active in a new domain of appearance. There are also new adinkra symbols added to the corpus of known stamps that continue the interplay between the verbal statement and the visual image. This attests to the dynamism of Akan society as they actively incorporate the arts of the past to the present, changing appearance and use to produce an art form suited to its time.


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1705 A New and Accurate Description of the Coast of Guinea, Reprinted 1907

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Field interviews

Okyeame Nana Bafour Osei Akoto, Manhyia Palace, Kumasi, August 3, 1988.

Okyeame Nana Bafour Anti Boasiako, Manhyia Palace, Kumasi, August 2, 1988.

Nsumankwahene Nana Domfeh Gyeabor, Manhyia Palace, Kumasi, August 3, 1988.

Abanasehene Nana Asafo Agyi II, Manhyia Palace, Kumasi, July 16, 1992

Odikro (of Asokwa) Nana Kwasei Kroko, 1988, 1991, 1992.

Nana Kwaku Dua II, Tewobaabi, July 28, 1991

Nana Kwasei Tawiah, Ntonso, 1991, 1992.

Reverend Agyeman Duah, Kumasi, 1988, 1991, 1992.

Joseph Nsiah, at Ntonso, 1988, 1991, 1992.

Steven Appiah, Asokwa, 1982, 1988, 1991, 1992.

Kusi Kwame, Asokwa, 1982, 1988, 1991, 1992.

Appreciation to Dr. Steven Andoh, Secretary to the Asantehene, Manhyia Palace, Kumasi, for his assistance and advice during this study.

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