Legendary Leaders, Iconic Sculptures

Article excerpt

Once upon a time the Akan people of Ghana and Cote d'Ivoire immortalised their heroes and distinguished personalities in art form - mainly through terracotta sculptural representations. However, in recent decades, with the dominance of the Akanlands by Christianity, the tradition has been dying out. But thanks to an exhibition that was mounted by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Akan art forms have been brought to life again.

IN MANY PARTS OF AFRICA, THE atrocity inflicted upon the people by the Berlin Conference of 1884-85 that balkanised the continent can be seen starkly in how homogeneous ethnic groups were carved up and shoved into two, three, and sometimes even more countries just by the stroke of a European pen. It is an atrocity that Africans have had to live with since that awful day of 26 February 1885, when the Berlin Conference ended and the Scramble for Africa began in earnest.

Some 127 years later, the Akan people of Ghana and Cote d'Ivoire, who happened to be one of those homogenous ethnic groups so carved up, have had their art forms honoured in an exhibition by The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The exhibition was accompanied by a beautiful coffee-table book, edited by the museum's curator, Alisa La Gamma.

Today the Akan people dominate both Ghana and Cote d'Ivoire by way of population. The Akans make up 45.3% of Ghana's 24.22 million people, and 42.1% of Cote d'Ivoire's 21.95 million population.

If humanitarianism ("help in suppressing slavery"), the advertised benefit to Africa of the Berlin Conference, was truly the objective of the European powers in 1884-85, the Akan people should have been made to constitute one country.

But no! Divide and rule was the rule. And so, without being consulted, the Akans found themselves shoved into two different countries. And that has been the order for the past 127 years!

The division has been particularly traumatic, as in the intervening decades, the Akans of Cote d'Ivoire, dominated by the French and their assimilation policy, have sought to differentiate themselves from their Ghanaian siblings, even as far as the spelling and pronunciation of their names--the same names! Kouassi is now the Ivorian variant of the Ghanaian Kwasi. But they mean the same thing: an Akan male born on Sunday.

All over the Akanlands, there is a profusion of such madness engendered by the division. But thanks to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Akans have symbolically come together again in art form to celebrate their heroes and distinguished personalities who have long joined the ancestors.

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In her book, Heroic Africans, which accompanied the exhibition, Alisa La Gamma makes some telling points: "Along the West African coast of present-day Ghana and ate d'Ivoire," she writes, "both distinguished mortals and divinities were once celebrated through terracotta sculptural representations.

"In these societies, which traditionally relied on oral transmission of knowledge, the death of a leader who had not only served as the repository for traditions relayed by past generations but who also presided over a lifetime of events that came to define his or her community, embodied the loss of a host of irretrievable information. Thus, a West African proverb says: 'When an elder dies, it is as if a whole library had burned down'."

This awareness of the place of the elders in society was especially acute among the Akans before Christianity took hold of the Akanlands. In those days, the "awareness" translated into the creation of terracotta effigies that paid homage to the roles of the departed elders as vessels of the collective experience, wisdom, and memory of their people's history. With Christianity now condemning such effigies as paganism, both the awareness and the art form have almost died away.

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It is a real shame, because those artworks, which were modelled as markers of a mortal's transient physical being, represented a cultural high point and afforded an enduring impression of how the leaders had sought to be immortalised. …