Popular Motifs on Asafo Flags from Southern Ghana
Blog by Silvia Forni, Curator of African Arts and Culture
The Fante are one of the many culturally and linguistically related groups known collectively as the Akan. They mostly live in the Central Region of Ghana, their territory extending along the coast and inland from Takoradi in the west, to Senya Beraku in the east. Coastland Fanteland, once known as the Gold Coast, has been exposed to European contact longer than any other area of sub-Saharan Africa. Between 1471 and 1828, various European powers built slaving and trading forts in Fante territory, along the coast. As a result, during the 18th century, at the height of the slave trade, asafo companies were formed to protect individuals from abduction and violence and to keep local communities safe. The concentration of trading and slaving forts that occurred along the coast of Ghana is really quite staggering, and a lasting vestige of the tragic history of trade connecting this region to the rest of the world.
Today Asafo companies preserve the memory of their role as community defenders, and enact their protective role by keeping disturbance in check and maintaining peace and order in the area of their town. Aside from their military function, Asafo companies are also connected to some of the most interesting and vibrant art forms of the region.
Asafo flags are the insignia created for the numerous military companies of the Fante states in Southern Ghana. They embody a company spirit and they are the most important and dynamic visual display of Asafo pride and power. Historical and contemporary asafo flags convey powerful narratives of pride, record historical events, visualize proverbial wisdom, and send defiant messages to enemies. They are poignant narrative artworks that become alive in community performances.
The typical Asafo flag is rectangular, with appliquéd mirror images designed on each side. Most flags have a geometrical border on three sides and a fringe for edging. Solid colours are most common in flag composition, although variations in fabric, patterns and texture can be quite broad and creative. Most Asafo flags display either the British Union Jack of the Chanaian national tricolours adopted in 1957 on the top inner corner of the flag (the canton). While this transition may offer an approximate dating reference, Asafo companies have continued to commission flags with the British emblem well beyond independence, to replace older flags or as a way to increase the resale value of their emblems. These national flags are often interpreted with a great deal of artistic license in both composition and chromatic associations.
Here are 6 popular motifs for Asafo Flags.
The lion is a prominent motif in Akan arts. It represents the strength and power of an individual or a group. Though indigenous to Africa, lions were not common in southern Ghana. The popularity of this motif on flags, shrines, and other art forms increased in the second half of the 19th century, inspired by European heraldic insignia. The lion’s power is often illustrated by his ability to overcome and dominate smaller animals, sometimes even the leopard. In this flag, the lion controls the entrance to a circular space where two smaller felines seem to be trapped.
Crocodiles and Fish
Water animals and fish are common Asafo motifs. Flag iconography usually identifies the company as the predators, whether animal or human. Fish represent the quintessential clueless or hopeless prey that cannot escape its fate. In this flag, the company leader points to a scene evoking a very common Akan proverb: “The mudfish grow fat for the benefit of the crocodile.”
Access to and control of technology are common metaphors used by companies to assert their superiority. Planes, ships, trucks, trains, telegraph lines, and other icons of technological modernity recur on flags, and often occupy prominent positions on company shrines (mposuban). Whether small biplanes or larger, more modern aircrafts planes are a favourite Asafo motif. They salute the ability of the owners of the flag to go anywhere without any constraints.
Fabulous winged creatures often inspired by European heraldry are common motifs on flags. Double-headed eagles are powerful creatures able to see in all directions, leaving no possible escape for the enemy. With wings fully outstretched, cannons in its talons, and cannonballs in its beaks, this double-headed eagle graphically illustrates the power and might of the company.
Keeping up with the times has been an ongoing priority in Asafo imagery. Time itself was made a highly visible statement with prominent clocks displayed on the exteriors, near the entrances, of several European slaving forts, especially Cape Coast. (The clock’s cousin, the sundial, was present at Elmina.)
While it’s not at all clear when these clocks first appeared, they have had a presence on at least 10 Asafo posuban and multiple flags for as long as can be documented. The ability to control time is a form of strength boasted by many companies throughout the region. This flag illustrates a common motif on Asafo insignia: “We control the cock and the clock bird.” This highly conventionalized saying refers to a company’s ability to control the flow of time and control when things happen in their town.
Whether they are seen as the hiding spot for dangerous creatures or solidly stuck in the ground, trees represent challenges that may be overcome only with courage and strength. Asafo iconography usually shows them together with large animals who may or may not be able to pull them down. Interestingly, some companies identify with the trees while others associate with the animal or man who challenges them. This complex composition shows a number of more or less dangerous characters gathering under or on a large tree. The composition goes with the saying, “Only a brave man goes under a large tree.”
You can learn more about Asafo flags in our current exhibition Art, Honour and Ridicule: Asafo flags from Southern Ghana.
Acquisition of the Asafo flags made possible through the generosity of the Mona Campbell Endowment Fund.
Originally published in the Fall 2016 issue of the ROM magazine.