TRIBAL AFRICAN ART

ASHANTI (ASANTE)

The Ashanti region of southern Ghana is a remnant of the Ashanti Empire, which was founded in the early 17th century when, according to legend, a golden stool descended from heaven into the lap of the first king, Osei Tutu. The stool is believed to house the spirit of the Ashanti people in the same way that an individual's stool houses his spirit after death.

In traditional Ashanti society, in which inheritance was through the maternal line, a woman's essential role was to bear children, preferably girls to continue the matrilineage. Fertility and children are the most frequent themes in the wooden sculptures of the Ashanti. The most numerous works are akua’ba fertility figures and mother-and-child figures. The akua'ba are dolls with disk-shaped heads embodying their concept of beauty and carried by women who want to become pregnant and to deliver a beautiful child. The figurine, worn by women in the back of the waistcloth, had two main functions: first, to insure a good birth and also to impart the beauty of the statue to the child and, second, to help a woman become pregnant. A Ghanaian source indicates another use: When a child disappeared, the acua’ba statue was placed with food and silver coins at the edge of the forest to attract the malevolent spirit responsible: the spirit would then exchange the child for the statue. Rather naturalistically carved wood figures in various positions, such as drumming, were used to illustrate legends or stories. They are called mmoatia or “fairy-tale” figures. Wooden maternity figures Esi mansa  belong to this group. They show the mother nursing or holding her breast. Such gestures express Ashanti ideas about nurturing, the family, and the continuity of a matrilineage through a daughter or of a state through a son. They are kept in royal and commoner shrines where they emphasize the importance of the family and lineage.

The Ashanti are also known for their ceremonial stools carved with an arched sit set over a foot, referring to a proverb or a symbol of wisdom. They are usually made for a chief when he takes office and are adorned with beads or copper nails and sheets. In rare cases, when the chief is sufficiently important, the stool is placed in a special room following his death to commemorate his memory. Ashanti chairs are based on 17th-century European models and, unlike stools, do not have any spiritual function. They are used as prestige objects by important chiefs during festivities or significant gatherings.

The success of the Ashanti Empire depended on the trade in gold not only with Europeans at the coast but also with the Muslim north. Gold dust was the currency, weighed against small brass weights that were often geometric or were representations recalling well-known proverbs.

The Ashanti developed remarkably diverse kuduo containers cast of copper alloys. Kuduo were used in many ways by the Ashanti. They held gold dust and other valuables, but could also be found in important political and ritual contexts. Some kuduo were buried with their owners, while others were kept in the palace shrine rooms that housed the ancestral stools of deceased state leaders. Life and the afterlife, the present and the past, were enhanced and made more meaningful by the presence of these elegant prestige vessels. The Ashanti also cast fine gold jewelry, as do the Baule of Côte d'Ivoire.

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