Two Unusual Wood Sculptures from Ghana

By H.E.Roese © October 1995

Illustrations: [Fig.1] [Fig.2] [Fig.3]

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Londonís Portobello Road Antiques Market has always been a place where the most unusual artifacts of human activity have surfaced. Some years ago the wooden sculpture in fig.1 emerged from there. It is 9 inches high and of a lightly coloured softwood. The figure has cracked along the spine and some of the foot-plinth has broken off.

Compared with other wooden sculptures from the African continent, it is clearly of unusual appearance, yet it is unmistakably African. What distinguishes it from others is its hair style, the like of which has not been seen before on any other African sculpture. As a style it is known as top-knotting, except that in practice each bunch is topped by a spike of hair. According to Louise E. Jeffersonís 1974 study "The Decorative Arts of Africa", the hair style was and still is fashionable all over West and Central Africa and girls wear it even today.

However, the figureís hair differs from the modern version in that above the receding hair line the hair does not lie flat against the scalp (as it does nowadays) but is piled high. It is quite unique for this particular hair style to be carved on a figurine. There are obvious signs that the sculpture has been handled and touched a great deal, particularly on its front. The facial features and frontal extremities are visibly worn down and the whole surface is very smooth and shiny.

| Figures 1a & 1b. [BACK]

When studying it at leisure one discovers that its principal feature, besides its hair style, is a ringed neck. This places its origins firmly in the realm of Ashanti culture. On searching for a similar figurine in the published illustrated literature, it soon emerged that a female ancestor or fertility figure from Ashanti was something new. Illustrations of akua mma dolls in various shapes and sizes and even some fertility figures with human (rather than anthropomorphic) heads are plentiful. However, nothing like this figurine is illustrated in the many scholarly publications.

A photograph of the figure was shown recently to the Chief Carver at the Cultural Centre in Kumasi. He agreed that the figurine was definitely Ashanti, but not solely because of its obvious ringed neck. Instead, the area between the neck and the buttocks told him more. It seems that the forward sloping shoulders and the appearance of the upper torso are typically Ashanti. It was mentioned that the hair style (fig.1b) appeared to be somewhat unusual, but the Chief Wood Carver was of the opinion that it had been popular many years ago. As to why there does not seem to be an illustration of a similar figure in the published literature, it can only be guessed that similar figurines were probably not available to be copied and reproduced. Nevertheless, it ought to be possible to attribute it to one of the many ethnic groups (e.g.Ewe), which assimilated Ashanti culture and its concepts of beauty. In order that it may become more widely known it is depicted here and perhaps one day it may even be recognized by an authority elsewhere.

The second sculpture has quite a different background. The Kente cloth weaving village of Bonwire, near Kumasi, seems to have the densest distribution of looms per acre anywhere. It is thus not surprising that at least one loom had (as was customary in the past for all) a finely carved and decorated heddle pulley. Figure 2 illustrates the 6 inches high carving which is also of a lightly coloured softwood and of a relatively delicate construction, considering the arduous work that it had to perform.

Marks of considerable wear on the inside of the pulley legs are noticeable. The small mouth aperture was used to suspend the implement from the loom by means of a meat hook. Again, the most notable feature of the carving is its ringed neck neatly joined to the back of the head (see fig.2b). This places the figure also into the ambit of the Ashanti culture. However, the head of the anthropomorphic figure is rectangular which is slightly tilted backwards. It has characteristically straight eyebrows and a long, straight nose, as well as a horizontal three-line scarification on the left cheek. All of this identifies the carving as having been conceived by someone familiar with Fanti culture. How did it find its way into the heartland of Ashanti? Unfortunately, no one could recall its origins apart from hazarding a guess that perhaps the grandfather of the present, 19 year old loom owner might have carved it. Who ever the carver was, he certainly possessed a fine carverís touch in shaping this relatively small, but detailed and accurate sculpture.

Figures 2a & 2b [BACK]

A heddle pulley appears to be a wear-and-tear part of a loom which needs periodic replacement. The new looking, undecorated examples on the rest of todayís looms in the village vouch for it. This heddle pulley certainly shows signs of wear. It has cracked across the left shoulder which has been pinned into place by two nails. It too was soon to be discarded and replaced by a new one. Despite some harsh buffeting by the hook along the eyebrows and right cheek, the overall patina is well preserved and clearly suggests that the carving had been in use for quite some time.

What makes this figure so special is that it is a Fanti sculpture other than a fertility doll. Again, the published literature contains no similar example for comparison, i.e. a heddle pulley. Therefore, it too is depicted here in order to broaden the illustrated spectrum of the sculptural output of the Fanti people, even though it is only a working part of a weaverís loom.

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