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Reviewed by:
  • Art, Honor, and Ridicule: Asafo Flags from Southern Ghana
  • Joseph L. Underwood (bio)
Art, Honor, and Ridicule: Asafo Flags from Southern Ghana
curated by Silvia Forni
Royal Ontario Museum
September 3, 2016–September 4, 2017

Art, honor, and ridicule are the three lenses through which a viewer might read the messages stitched onto the surface of each asafo flag. Particularly popular among international audiences over the last forty years, asafo flags (frankaa) derived their form from European flags that decorated forts and vessels since the fifteenth century. Curated by Silvia Forni, this exhibition was constructed on field research ranging from 1974 to 2015 but also responded to the spread of asafo imagery through Peter Adler’s formative Asafo!: African Flags of the Fante (1993), catalogs of flags sold by Sotheby’s, and contemporary material culture. While some of the thirty-five flags in the exhibition were original, many were recreations of older flags (a standard practice of replacing originals that are sold or worn through performance) or new commissions (Fig. 2). As a whole, the exhibition excelled at balancing analyses of particular objects with contextualizing asafo companies as community-building spaces within the Fante states. For the curators, these are “narrative artworks that become alive in community performances” as they “record historical events, visualize proverbial wisdom, and send defiant messages to enemies.”1


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1.

View of Art, Honor, and Ridicule: Asafo Flags from Southern Ghana in the Patricia Harris Gallery of Textiles & Costume, Royal Ontario Museum.

all photos: courtesy the Royal Ontario Museum

The cornerstone of this new exhibition was the acquisition of a large number of flags from Federico Carmignani by the Royal Ontario Museum. These acquisitions were supplemented by pieces acquired by Forni during research trips in 2014 and 2015. Her anthropological research during this time explored how this institution—the asafo company—morphs over the centuries, examining its shifting societal roles from conception, through colonialism, and into the contemporary.

The small Fante states gained influence through trade with Europeans as each state was ruled by an Omanhene and a council of chiefs. The asafo company, a counterbalance to central authority, acted on behalf of the common people during interactions with chiefs and later, colonial administrators. The asafo compan(ies) within the state also served as its militia (sa + fo translate to “war people” in Akan), charged with protecting the people and engaging in warfare. States would boast between two and fourteen companies, with each company led by an [End Page 89] asafohemfo or asafohembaa (male or female captain). The vibrant flags are the insignia for these companies; they wave as signifiers of a local aesthetic, a group identity, and/or a communal affront to outsiders—art, honor, and ridicule. Asafo flags are built up in the appliqué technique on a monochrome background and generally feature flat images, though various cloths sometimes add texture or patterning to the composition. The bold imagery is framed by a distinctive border and most flags include the Union Jack or the Ghanaian tricolor in the canton.


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2.

Asafo flag

Baba Issaka, Swedru Workshop (made on commission), 2014

Unidentified Company, Cape Coast, Ghana

Cotton, polyester, appliqué, embroidery; 118 cm × 161.5 cm

2014.59.15


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3.

Asafo flag

Essel Manso, Saltpond Workshop Uniden-tified Company, Ghana Cotton, 1900–1925

Applique, embroidery; 101 cm × 183 cm

2012.65.15


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4.

Asafo flag

Unidentified Artist, Saltpond Workshop Unidentified Company, Krofu, Ghana Cotton, applique, embroidery

c. 1960

115 × 176 cm

2012.65.29

Beyond the introductory section that described the Fante people and the structure of asafo companies, the exhibition was loosely organized into pairs of flags that relate to a theme—such as Call to Arms, Controlling Time, and Mechanical Superiority. Some pairs, though, were simply iconographic “themes”: Lion, Trees, or Elephant. When trotted out for the various company spectacles throughout the year, a flag’s message would be read differently by members of the community, local rivals, and outsiders. The pair of lion flags (Figs. 3–4), for example, conveys the control of one...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1937-2108
Print ISSN
0001-9933
Pages
pp. 89-92
Launched on MUSE
2018-05-23
Open Access
No
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