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
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 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.
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's enemies through sheer force. While it honors the oversized lion as the personification of the company, it belittles the disempowered leopard who, enclosed or trapped in a space of danger, embodies the company's rivals and enemies. The concept of control, or domination, recurs where access to technological advances (ships, trains, planes) is presented as a means of controlling space. Similarly, with clocks and clock birds, the company asserts mastery over time and the movement of people within their territory.
In contrast to previous asafo publications, a particular strength of this exhibition is the scrupulous attention to provenance, recording the flagmakers, workshops, and commissioning companies whenever possible. A particular challenge because dealers often withhold such information, this lacuna was addressed by Forni and Ross as they named the creators and assembled the means by which a workshop built its repertoire of flags. Interactive fixtures of the exhibition, including iPad videos and pull-out drawers, elucidated the flagmaking process. Cut-out patterns marked the style of their makers and these same silhouettes appeared in the flags of the neighboring display case. Indeed, one of the exhibition's strengths was the prolific supplementary materials that contextualized these flags as a single element of a larger demonstration of community identity and ritual.
Two thirds of the objects in the exhibition were not flags. Mannequins dotted the platforms, modeling a leader's traditional bataker shirt and the dance groups’ brilliant costumes. One case featured the musical instruments that animate the flag dancer while another showcased the tekuwa (gold-bejeweled wig) and accoutrements of female asafo leaders (Fig. 5). An immersive exhibition, the displays also relied heavily on videos—projected and digital—taken from Skip Cole and Doran Ross's field research in the 1970s and ‘80s, paired with recent footage from Forni's videographer. These films allowed the exhibition to expand beyond its physical limits, namely with the inclusion of a great processional banner and clips of actual performances by flag dancers, men whose dance is “at once choreographic, ritual, and spiritual.” The exhibition was additionally animated by local Ghanaian support. The Mfantseman Cultural Association of Toronto attended the opening events in full regalia and even compiled a soundtrack that would remain in the galleries as ambient music.
The wide range of objects included in Art, Honor, and Ridicule highlights the curatorial interest in how images and motifs circulate in the popular imagination. From lengths of a décor textile called “Fante Flags” produced by Andrew Martin International, to products from Etsy that reimagine the asafo flag form as an armchair, cushion, or doll, the planar organization and saturated colors from asafo visual culture clearly echoed through the new creations by international designers and members of the diaspora. A pair of paintings by George Afedzi Hughes, Gold Pyramid (Fig. 6) and Pruning Cycle (2015), captured the asafo penchants for minimalist space and decorative border in form and for posturing against invaders and personifying animals allegorically in content. In processing the encounter with colonial power and that tension's legacy for Ghana, Hughes demonstrates the saliency of both the asafo flag's trademark style and its biting commentary in communicating assertions of personal and group identity.
Though the installation struggled in its flow at times, the overarching lenses of art, honor, and ridicule resonated between the sections. While Forni firmly placed the exhibition in historical grounding, the emphasis on contemporary flags, costumes, accessories, and elements from pop culture guided the museum visitor to recognize the continued relevance of the institution of asafo companies. As the “vibrant core of local communities,” the role of the group has shifted from militaristic aims to communal engagement. Every Fante man and woman today belongs to a company. Though the level of each person's participation may vary, the leaders of these groups believe that asafo is a “practical enactment of the democratic ideals of the nation state.” From the hand-stitched flags, to the dance groups’ costumes and the footage of their performances, this exhibition told a general audience the story of how many generations of asafo individuals have defined themselves and their distinct Fante communities through visual expression.
A publication is available: Silvia Forni and Doran H. Ross, Art, Honor, and Ridicule Fante Asafo Flags from Southern Ghana (Ottawa: Royal Ontario Museum Press and Los Angeles: Fowler Museum at UCLA, 2016; 304 pp. hardcover, $49.95 CDN).
All quotes in this review are from the exhibition didactics.