Silent, looming forts along Ghana s coast attest to days when British vessels came first to trade, then later, carry off human cargo to the Americas.
As a deterrent to these slavers, Dutch colonists in Ghana 1724, encouraged the Fante people living along the coast to mobilize themselves into a series of organized military units, specifically devised for the protection and defence of their communities. These militant groups became known as Asafo, the term originating from the words sa (war) and fo (people). War- people. They functioned as highly competitive units. Men adopted European drill procedures and military style tactics. Bases for storing arms and company regalia called postuban were built along the coast.
Designed with ingenuity, today these postuban have developed into extraordinary architectural structures. Some might consider them fantastical follies, made from a conglomeration of spires, turrets, ornamental balconies sometimes even emulating the prow of battleships. Regaling viewers with their artistic prowess, rather than their fortified exteriors, these symbolic and rather mythical buildings are festooned with brilliant murals and a confection of freestanding cement sculptures, reminiscent of their sculptural tradition.
The distinctive flags for each Asafo company were hoisted at the postuban, or were mobile, being danced aggressively through the streets. In this context, they become processional art. Besides their representation as insignia of the company, when danced in the street the “entity” of the flag becomes more complex as its meaning and multiplicity of message is reinterpreted both by the dance and by the audience feedback.
The rhythm and speed of these habitual dance moves and handling of the flag also led to adjustments of scale, shape and material weight, facilitating easier movement.. These dynamic displays occurred at annual festivals, funerals or relevant community ceremonies.
New flag designs were conceived for the inauguration of leaders – sewn by men from imported cotton cloth and then appliqued and embroidered with variety of coloured motifs to create the central image. As this was an unprecedented art form in Ghana, necessary for the establishment of postubans, flags were initially inspired by European models. The origin of the format of Asafo flags was also influenced by the British flag used in the West African region, and the Gold coast from 1877- 1957 as can be seen below.
A version of the union jack was located in the top left or right corners of asafo flags during the colonial era, replaced later by Ghana’s flag after independence in 1957.
As the union jack was incorporated on stamps, possibly the style of postage stamps impacted on the surface development and layout of Asafo flags. Also, the boldly displayed number on each flag, (designating each postuban and company), is reminiscent of the numerical values assigned to stamps.
Flags are rectangular, typically fringed on the outer edge or have a folded border systematically cut at intervals, reminiscent of the edging on postage stamps.
Indigenous fauna and flora, like those featured on stamps provides the props of a stylized backdrop of the natural world on flags against which the central drama unfolds.
The decorative boundary on the flag may have been invented to denote a particular maker or motivated by similar framing conventions in advertising or signage. This construct is typically an ordering or focusing device for highlighting the information relayed in the central area.
Imagery on the flags resulted from the indigenous Fante sculptural tradition. The compositions depict centrally placed tableaux with between 1 and 8 figurative images making up the design. These are cut-out shapes, mostly conceived in side profile. The images, colour and composition are conceived in the mind of the maker and then meticulously stitched in place as a culmination of that mental image. Generally bright solid colours without tones or shadows are used. Unity of the composition comes from the interplay of the components and their relationship to each other. A larger scale denotes greater significance to particular features, rather than any reliance on perspective.
Flags are multi-directional and like documents, are sometimes read from the left, or the right as images are mirrored on both sides. The viewers’ visual conventions alter due to these spacial differences.
Stimulus for the central image was inspired by a variety of unlikely stylistic sources: heraldic frippery in the form of griffons, dragons and double headed eagles, European flags, African iconography and their indigenous sculptural tradition. A menagerie of animal, mythical, inanimate or human characters are portrayed. These flags, as metaphors are unique in Africa resulting from a two dimensional visual alchemy distinctive to the Fante people.
They are strikingly beautiful images communicating effectively with viewers. Their stark direct message is compounded by the clarity of the figures and simplicity of the image. But flags can be fierce. This is competitive banter likened to the most savage contemporary meme. In some instances, they can have a bitter satirical quality, defiantly goading rival companies: They are made to intimidate or agitate, hurling insults at complacent opposition units.
Flags although theoretically an invention and a departure from the indigenous sculptural tradition, nevertheless reflect it, as the style of the rounded forms and combination of figurative images coheres with the grouping of similar motifs depicted on stool pedestals, staffs and the sides of large drums. Single images are also woven in two dimensions, common to textiles by the Akan groups thereby underpinning Ghana’s visual language.
Like that in textiles or sculpture, the content of flags alludes to complex linguistic references and local proverbs and aphorisms and these visual images by extension, therefore also preserve oral traditions. They are full of humour, irony and satire. Some flags will illustrate for example: “The ships are always ready to sail and can carry loads of any size”. By association, implying that the members of the postuban are always alert and ready for any action. “Only a brave man will go under a big tree”- warning rivals of unexpected challenges should they venture close. Flags can recall veiled codes of ethics, i.e: “The mudfish grows fat for the benefit of the crocodile”.
Some depictions, like that of elephants are repeated regularly. Proverbs related to this might be: “..only the elephant can uproot the palm tree” or the contrary “..unable to defeat the palm tree, the elephant made friends with it”.
After the independence of Ghana in 1957, flag-makers again reference language and new modes of education by adding literacy in the form of English to the image.
Flags are narrative as they record and commemorate historical events and wars, serving as mimetic documents for the next generation of members. They portray changing world views in context as large ships, trains, aeroplanes and automobiles in the 1940s, depict encroaching modernity and international economies. Another perception was “Ghanaians can now travel anywhere without constraint”.
Today Asafo groups still enforce codes of conduct in the community and exercise extensive political influence in the country. They continue to make flags as a manifestation of their culture. Contemporary material appliques made by the Fon people of Benin are slightly similar to the flags.
In 2017, contemporary textile and ceramic artist, Grayson Perry acknowledged the inspiration of Asafo flags in his work titled: Gay black cats m.c. ( 87x 148 cm) exhibited at the Serpentine gallery, London.
He used a similar format, style and material as the flags: The image was made of cotton fabric, embroidered and appliqued. The motif of the union jack generally consistent in Perry’s work, like that on the flags, also featured in the upper left corner. The stylized colourful image is encased by a border like the original layout. Figurative images are arranged proportionally, according to importance with the same cartoon-like clarity. The vigour and speed of the motorcycle, also apparently without constraint, recalls other automated machines depicted on the flags. The opposition or policeman with automatic weapon is rendered totally ineffectual, depicted as a skeleton. Writing, like literacy on the flags, states the name and motif of the textile and club.
The black cat riders with evident joy and abandonment, seem to leap forward, heaping scorn and derision on the caged and impotent feline or griffon at right, reminiscent of those other dis-empowered and derided rival units… Although referencing the flags, this piece is coherent with Grayson Perry’s endless depictions of irony, humour and joy.