Currently on display at the ROM is Art, Honour, and Ridicule: Asafo Flags from Southern Ghana. The display showcases flags handcrafted by the Fante people of Southern Ghana. Fante states design these flags for the Asafo companies belonging to their communities. Asafo companies are military regimes that both enforce and protect villages. The flags represent the warfare, bravery, and national spirit of the military community in Ghana.
The flags are made of stitched and appliqued cotton. Flag tailors are male, commissioned by Asafo companies. The styles of flag-making are passed on through generations. Artists rely on animal and human imagery as tools in constructing their narrative.
Some flags depict the pride of a company. For example, in Essel Manso’s flag, the design depicts two men with muskets guarding the company’s shrine. In the corners, there is a lock and key, meant to represent the control of the company, as they are the only ones with the key. The guards have a sacred quality to their status, as if guarding an important artifact of the Fante people’s culture.
Other flags rely on animals to represent the traits needed to become a successful Asafo company. Baba Issah’s flag from the Petubew Asebo workshop depicts a strong man carrying a large, round object above his head. This object represents his town. There is a spider next to him, which signifies wisdom—a trait that members of the company need to attain power.
Some of my favourite animal motifs included lions, elephants, and fish. The lions represent strength and domination. Elephants also represent strength, but they are not always successful. One striking elephant flag is Baba Issaka’s flag from the Swedru workshop. In this design, the artist juxtaposes the elephant next to a palm, which is considered the strongest tree in the forest. On the right side is a man holding a scale. He is measuring the odds of who will outweigh the other in strength, just as companies need to prove themselves victorious against others.
Asafo companies also use predatory animals to represent themselves. They depict their rival companies as fish, seen in Kweku Kakanu’s flag from Saltpond Workshop. This flag illustrates a crocodile about to devour a clueless fish. This is a boastful warning to other companies that this company is strategic in planning attacks.
Many of the flags also display proverbs and moral lessons. A second flag by Kakanu depicts a whale and a ship. The flag tells the observer that “No one can defeat the whale but the ship.” This flag suggests that although whales are strong creatures, the ship’s technological advancements are superior to the whale’s natural strength.
Other artists display games in their flags. One flag by an unknown artist contains an Oware board, an Ashanti strategy game similar to chess. On the left side, a man sits triumphantly next to a dead boar on his right. Game motifs in Asafo flags represent the ongoing competitions between companies. These competitions involve technological advances, ceremonial dances, or military arms.
Apart from the collection of flags, the exhibition also includes many embroidered costumes and uniforms used in ceremonial flag dances. One colourful skirt on display was designed to look like the American flag. It was worn in the 2015 Akwambo festival celebrated by the Agona Nyakrom and Agona Swedru people from Central Ghana every August.
The most beautiful costume is the queen mother’s outfit, a purple embroidered dress draped in gold stitching and golden jewelry. Queen mothers and chiefs are authoritative figures in the Akan communities. These communities follow a female hierarchy. Like men, women are also Asafo leaders and have the same power as their male counterparts.
The Asafo flag art signifies the protection and strength of the militia companies. Animals, humans, and objects tell the observer about the given company’s strengths and warnings. Asafo flags capture the spirit and passion of the Fante people. They showcase the power and respect Asafo companies have in their communities.
Art, Honour, and Ridicule: Asafo Flags from Southern Ghana is on display at the ROM until March 2017.