Monday, 7 May 2012

Pageantry and Ritual: The Akan

Memorial head of Nana Attabra
Akan peoples; Aowin traditional area,
Nkwanta, Ghana
18th century
Musée Dapper, Paris

Memorial Head
Akan peoples; Kwahu traditional area, Ghana
19th – 20th century
Terracotta, kaolin
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Memorial Head
Akan peoples; Twifo-Heman traditional area (?),
18th century
Musée Dapper, Paris

"When an elder dies, it is as if a whole library had burned down."  West African proverb

As early as seventeenth century, Akan artists in centers across present-day southern Ghana and southeastern Côte d’Ivoire, an area once known as the Gold Coast, modeled commemorative images of chiefs, priests, queen mothers, and other notables in ordinary clay. Their creations paid tribute to their leaders’ roles as vessels for the collective experience, wisdom, and memory of their people.

In Akan culture the afterlife was conceived of as a parallel state of existence. Visual tributes to august individuals were deposited at sacred resting places situated beyond the confines of their villages. This act of devotion was the central feature of a posthumous celebration that paraded the works through the community and featured music, dance, and offerings of sustenance. Implanted in accessible outdoor groves, the exposed works were vulnerable to removal. Once isolated from their shrines, they became disassociated from the local oral traditions that connected them to their original subjects as well as from the complex figurative tableaux within which they were once positioned.

Akan sculptors developed distinctive interpretations of the hollowed terracotta genre, from the schematic two-dimensional depictions favored by Kwahu artists to the highly detailed cylindrical works embraced by their Aowin counterparts. These approaches universally emphasize the passage of the head gazing heavenward. The artists’ stated ambition was to achieve an incisive degree of accuracy, thus directly relating a work to its subject. The consistency among representations from the same center, however, underscores the notion of kra, the essential spiritual dimension that transcends individuality and unites a leader’s soul with that of his or her ancestors. Similarly, the idea of sunsum, a spiritual continuum across successive generations, is expressed through the Akan terracotta corpus.

Given the association of the clay medium with female specialists in Akan society, it appears that women were the primary authors of these sculptural works. Accounts suggest that the artist, selected by the family, studied the subject in repeated sittings during his or her lifetime. The intimate nature of the connection between a work and its subject could be further heightened by placing items, taken from the bodies of family members, through an aperture in the back of the hollowed figurative vessel.

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