In this mini episode, Isabella discusses the Asafo flags of the Fante, who live in Ghana's coastal region. Asafo flags are vibrant, appliquéd flags that combine folklore, proverbs, and heraldry.
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Whatsup stitches! Welcome to episode 13 of season 3 of Sew What? hosted by your friend and historic needlework fan, Isabella Rosner. I can’t believe there’s only three more episodes of the season left! Time continues to fly by and make no sense to me. Today’s episode is our fourth mini episode about the needlework technique of a specific continent. We’ve done Europe, we’ve done the Americas, we’ve done Asia, and now we’re doing Africa. A delight, a joy! Today is the day to get into Asafo flags, regimental flags of the Fante people of Ghana made of appliqued trade cloth.
Before we get into Asafo flags, I have to briefly say you can see images of what I discuss today, as well as the sources I used, at sewwhatpodcast on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook and at sewwhatpodcast.com.
Okay, back to the topic at hand. I’ll give you fine folks a lil overview of Asafo flags and then we’ll get into their history, design, and techniques involved. Asafo flags, called frankaa spelled f-r-a-n-k-a-a, are an important part of Asafo regalia. The trusty “Asafo flags” Wikipedia article has an excellent, concise overview, which I will share with you all because it’s straight to the point and just an overall good time. It reads, “A man who wishes to join Asafo society designs a new flag and commissions its production from the local flag maker. The imagery of the flag challenges rival groups as it asserts the wealth and power of the company. The designs are a reflection of the importance of proverbs throughout the Akan culture. A company's flags are usually hung around the Posuban, a concrete shrine for each company that is colourfully decorated with bright figures and serves as a place for regalia and sacrifice. The flags are carried on a procession through the village, and are used at annual festivals, funerals for company members, and other occasion.” I realise there are a few terms that I haven’t defined in that summary, so let me fix that. First, asafo. Asafo are warrior groups in Akan culture. The Akan are basically a group of ethnic groups who live primarily in present-day Ghana and the Ivory Coast. The word “Asafo” comes from “sa,” which means war, and “fo,” which means people. Historically, the role of Asafo companies was defence of the state. Because the Fante inhabited and still do inhabit the coastal region, which was historically called the Gold Coast, they developed an especially thorough network of Asafo companies and a subsequent visual art element, which are, of course, the flags.
So now let’s delve into how and why the flags developed, yeah? Yeah. Okay, so the Fante people live along the southern coast of Ghana to the west of Accra in fishing villages like Anomabu, Saltpond, Mankessim, Elmina, and the town of Cape Coast. Elmina was the site of the first major European settlement in West Africa – that’s where the Portuguese built St George’s Castle in 1492. After this, for several centuries, the region of and around Elmina was a centre for slave trading. The Fante became really important intermediaries between the European slavers and tribes further into the region, away from the coast. Big, obvious yikes at the slave trading, obviously.
So the Portuguese rolled through at the end of the 15th century but European cloth didn’t get to the region until the 17th century. That’s when it’s believed Asafo flag making began. The sources I’ve consulted state that there are reports of Asafo flags being made and used from at least the late 17th century. Barbara Eyeson, the creative director of Asafoflags.com who collects, sells, and researches Asafo Flags, says the earliest flags date back to the early 18th century and may have been painted or drawn on raffia. What’s unclear to me is exactly when Asafo companies emerged. Wikipedia has the most thorough origin story of any of the online sources I’ve found. The Wikipedia article for “Asafo” reads, “In Elmina, Asafo companies emerged in the early 18th century out of the wards of Elmina that had existed since at least the 17th century. The omission of a description of Asafo companies in Willem Bosman's Nauwkeurige beschrijving (1703) leads Harvey Feinberg to the conclusion that these companies could not have been very important by that date. This changed in the first quarter of the 18th century, when the original three wards had been complemented by four new wards consisting of new immigrant groups to Elmina.
In 1724, when the Dutch needed the help of the Elminese to oust John Canoe from Fort Groß Friedrichsburg, they organized the wards into rank order, with each ward having a number and an established military formation. It was this occasion that gave rise to the domination of Asafo companies in the socio-political life of Elmina, and of the 10 Asafo companies existing today, seven are mentioned in 1724.” The Wikipedia states that another three Asafo companies were added in the 19th century. There are seven asafo companies in Cape Coast. And if you’re wondering what exactly was up with all these different European countries colonising the region, they were very much doing that until 1874, when Britain established control over the area.
According to Barbara Eyeson on Asafoflags.com, which I mentioned just a few minutes ago, “Asafo companies developed as military organisations of young men in the Fante villages, adapting flags and other European-inspired regalia to local use. As well as defending the village against local enemies and incursions by the Asante, the two or three companies in each community developed intense local rivalries, which were acted out during festivals and other ceremonial occasions.
The active fighting role of the Asafo companies ended with the British colonial takeover late in the nineteenth century, but they remain key associations in the ritual life of Fante villages.” During Ghana’s period of colonisation, Asafo companies were in charge of sanitation, roadworks, local policies, community entertainment, protecting state goods, and conducting funerals. Their fighting duties ended with British colonisation, but they still have a strong role in the ritual life of Fante villages.
Each Asafo company has a central shrine called a Posuban, which is where the flags and other regalia are stored. During annual festivals, funerals for company members, and other festive occasions, the flags are hung around the Posuban and paraded around the village. So, yes, there’s the history, from then until now! Asafo flags are still very much being made. According to an article from The Conservation Center, “Asafo flags are made exclusively by men, with younger generations apprenticing to learn the art. The flags were an active art, something used in day to day life, and are still being made, as Gus Casely – Hayford, a British curator, cultural historian and lecturer with Ghanaian roots called them, “a visual metaphor for what community can mean.””
And now, let’s get into the flags themselves, designs and such. Asafo flags are really bold in their design and are often quite colourful. They combine regional proverbs, narrative storytelling, and European heraldic tradition. Text and things like human figures, animals, geometric borders, and flags are cut out of colourful cottons and are appliqued onto another piece of coloured cotton. There are lots of human figures in profile, often with embroidered ears, eyes, and mouths. A lot of them hold guns, which makes sense, given the whole military company thing. There are animals, like donkeys, lobsters, chickens, and lions. And most have polychrome borders, with strips of cotton in alternating colours, zig zags, and triangles. And some have fringe along their borders.
At this point I will refer back to Barbara Eyeson’s wise words, this time in an article from itsnicethat.com called “Asafo flags embody cultural meanings and narratives from Ghana’s Fante people.” The article is written by Jyni Ong and the final paragraph is a mix of Ong and Eyeson’s words, which reads, “The flags often illustrate powerful visual metaphors, such as animals like the crocodile which represents strength in the Fante communities; “creatures are often considered more powerful than humans” says Barbara. The fish and crocodile flag titled Hen Afu narrates the proverb of how “fish grow fat for the benefit of the crocodile who rules the river”. The Peppertree flag documents an obedience fable, “if a child wants to pick a ripe pepper, let him do it and when it gets in his eyes he will stop himself”. The Cactus Tree flag is about how “only a brave chicken will approach a cactus tree” as the cactus and pepper tree were considered dangerous. In The Big Waterbird, “the big water bird swallows a fish from a different angle” suggesting that the owners of the flag can accomplish things others find difficult. The flags offer a fascinating insight into Fante culture through a timeless aesthetic and capture the soul of Fante proverbs through simple and elegant designs.” I learned a lot from that pithy description but I also learned that I would like to be a brave chicken who approaches a cactus tree. May we all be brave chickens.
Here’s another description of some Asafo flags, this time from a blog post accompanying the 2016-7 exhibition about Asafo flags at the Royal Ontario Museum: “Asafo flags depict all manner of peoples and events, from simple fish to raging griffons, and each image is highly symbolic. An Asafo flag depicting a crocodile and fish, for instance, was a message to other companies and potential invaders - the invaders were the fish, and the company the crocodile; a beast of prey coming in on a helpless opponent. In a similarly imagery-based message, some companies would depict the traps their people used for bringing home food as a warning that invasion of their territory was a poor idea, by suggesting that invaders would be quickly detected and surrounded. In other cases, flags would bear the image of powerful beasts, such as lions, to intimidate enemies.” Flags from before 1957 usually feature a British flag in the upper left corner. 1957 is the date Ghana gained its independence. The inclusion of the British flag makes a lot of sense when one considers that Asafo companies adopted European military practices under colonisation. Asafo flags made after 1957 feature Ghanaian flags in the upper left corner instead.
It’s easy to love these flags. After all, they’re bold, vibrant, and deceptively simple. One of the things I love so much about them is that they make these tiny snippets of life, these momentary scenes, permanent. I also love how much they say and suggest in so just a few appliqued shapes. And, of course, I love how very colourful they are. The more vibrant a textile is, the more into it I am! Buuuut, loving Asafo flags has to come with some caveats. These flags are artifacts from Ghana’s colonial past. That’s not easy to forget, since most historic examples have the flag of Ghana’s colonisers on them. Each flag has on it a further flag, which makes it feel like the Ghanaian object is pledging allegiance or some sort of loyalty to the British flag. It’s a complicated thing to think about because Asafo flags wouldn’t exist without the arrival of European cloth all those centuries ago, but then again, maybe Asafo and therefore their flags wouldn’t have existed or would have been far different if it hadn’t been for the arrival of Europeans themselves. And it’s not just the British who are the baddies here, as the Fante acted as the middleman in the slave trade, thanks to their position along the coast. The artist Kerry James Marshall and his wife, actress Cheryl Lynn Bruce, said it simply and perhaps best when they said, ““We bought these flags more than twenty years ago because the designs were bold, yet economical. The symbolism was enigmatic; however, we knew the banners were artifacts from Ghana’s colonial past.” To talk about Asafo flags like they are nothing more than banners would be unfair to the tricky history of Asafo companies and the region’s history of colonisation.
But on top of all of that, Asafo flags speak to the power of visual story telling. They relay jokes, insults, historic lessons, proverbs, warnings, and everything in between through nothing but cloth on cloth. Even though I don’t speak Akan and therefore can’t read the text on most Asafo flags, I don’t really need text to understand the narratives told so simply, so vibrantly on these banners. I see a man stealing water, I see a woman nursing her young, and I see a group of people watching shooting stars. In these textiles, images transcend text and I think that is so rad. The power of textiles is, once again, comin’ in hot! Before I end this episode, I want to leave you with a boast depicted on an Asafo flag in the Textile Museum in Washington DC that I think is just great. It depicts two armed men watching a man with a bowl on top of a cactus on his head. It illustrates the boast, “We can carry water in a basket using a cactus as a headcushion” aka “we can do the impossible.” I really love that, not only the unexpected current of cactus imagery that has appeared throughout this episode, but this flag, this brightly coloured, super graphic, dynamic flag that waves in the wind and literally says “we can do the impossible.”
And on that very motivational speaker note I will say goodbye for now and thanks for listening. See you next week for another episode full of historic needlework goodness.
Now go out and stitch some stories and be the brave chicken who will approach the cactus tree. Bye!