ASANTE Information

Location: Southern Ghana
Population: 1.5 million
Language: Asante (Akan cluster
Neighbors: Baule, Fanti, Ewe, Dagomba
Types of Art: The legend of the origination of the Akuaba doll comes from the story of a woman named Akua (many variations of the name are found as there are many variations of the spelling of akuaba) who could not get pregnant and went to a local diviner or priest and commissioned the carving of a small wooden doll. She carried and cared for the doll as if it were her own child, feeding it, bathing it and so on. Soon the people in the village started calling it Akuaba - meaning the child of Akua, since ba meant child. She soon became pregnant and her daughter grew up with the doll. The legend and tradition still live on today... If an Akan/Asante woman had difficulty conceiving she would be encouraged to visit a local shrine accompanied by a senior woman in her family. There she might purchase a figure such as this, which would be placed for a period on the altar, later to be reclaimed by the woman along with certain medicines. The sculpture was then carried, fed, bathed, and otherwise cared for by the woman as if it was a living baby. It was thought that in doing this the woman would have a better chance to have a healthy and beautiful baby. Once the woman conceived and had a successful delivery, she would return the figure to the shrine as a form of offering. If the child died, the akuaba might be kept by the woman as a memorial. The symbolism of these dolls is specific: The flat, disk like head is a strongly exaggerated conception of the Akan ideal of beauty: Round or oval shaped heads are considered ideal and this is accomplished in actual practice by the gently modeling the soft cranial bones of the infant. The flat profile of these figures is also more practical when they are carried against the back wrapped in the dress or skirt. Also standard is the ringed neck, a convention for rolls of fat and hence beauty and prosperity. The small scars seen on the faces of many akuaba are those made for medicinal purposes as protection against convulsions. Most Asante akuaba have abstracted, horizontal arms and a cylindrical torso with breasts and a navel, but ending in a base rather than human legs. Aside from the stools and dolls, the Asante are best known for their other royal arts, which include staff and umbrella finials, lost wax cast gold jewelry, and brass gold weights. Kente cloth is a high-prestige textile that was originally woven from imported silk and now is woven of rayon and other synthetics. Kente cloth has been worn in Ghana by rulers and since independence by commoners as well, and it has also become an important African-American cultural symbol. The deceased are honored by fired-clay memorial heads.
History: The rise of the early Akan centralized states can be traced to the 13th century and may be related to the opening of trade routes established to move gold throughout the region. It was not until the end of the 17th century, however, that the grand Asante Kingdom emerged in the central forest region of Ghana, when several small states united under the Chief of Kumasi in a move to achieve political freedom from the Denkyira. It is said that the Golden Stool of the Asante descended from heaven to rest on the knees of Osei Tutu, the first Ashantehene, who was guided by his adviser the priest Okomfe Anokye. The Golden Stool became the focal point of the creation of the Akan confederacy, of which the most important people were the Asante. The Asante dominated Ghana for the next 200 years and are still a dominant political force today.
Economy: The early Asante economy depended on the trade of gold and enslaved peoples to Mande and Hausa traders, as well as to Europeans along the coast. In return for acting as the middlemen in the slave trade, the Asante received firearms, which were used to increase their already dominant power, and various luxury goods that were incorporated into Asante symbols of status and political office. The forest surrounding the Asante served as an important source of kola nuts, which were sought after for gifts and used as a mild stimulant among the Muslim peoples to the north.
Political Systems: The Asante developed a highly centralized, semimilitary government with a paramount chief known as the Asantahene. The Asantahene, who inherited his position along matrilineal lines, had numerous chiefs below him throughout the kingdom who acted on his behalf. He also had many counselors with whom he conferred before making decisions. The Asantahene still plays an important role in Ghana today, symbolically linking the past with current Ghanaian politics.
Religion: The spiritual center of the Asante alliance is the mystical Golden Stool. It is believed to have descended out of the skies in the late 17th century as a result of the prayers of Okomfo Anokye, chief priest of the King of Asante, Nana Osei Tutu. The stool was presented to the people after the defeat of the Denkyira, and Anokye declared that it contained the spirit of the whole of the Asante nation and that all of the strength of the nation depended on the safety of the stool. Essentially, the stool embodies the political unity of the Akan states and the power of the chiefs of Asante. Another essential part of Asante religion is the honoring of departed kings who are represented by stools which have been blackened during a sacrificial ceremony. Although the golden stool is clearly a more visible representation of the spiritual link to the King, it is the blackened stool that truly honors the strength and continuity of the throne.
Credit: McIntyre, L. Lee and Christopher D. Roy. 'Art and Life in Africa Online.' 1998: The Art and Life in Africa Project, Akuaba credit: Sotheby's, AFRICA - The Art of A Continent, The Royal Art of Africa