Skip to main content Smithsonian Institution

Catalog Data

Fante artist  Search this
Cotton, silk, synthetic fiber, dye
H x W x D: 154 x 4131 x .5 cm (60 5/8 x 1626 3/8 x 3/16 in.)
Costume and Textile
Central region, Ghana
Mid-20th century
Label Text:
Appliquéd banners and flags are kinetic arts of the Akan traditional military association known as Asafo. Asafo companies, as the associations have become known, play an important role in the political process, balancing the power of paramount chiefs, taking part in ceremonies when a new chief is installed, and playing an active role in civic affairs. Although found in most Akan states in south-central Ghana, Asafo is most highly developed among the coastal Fante. It has a long history in Ghana and may well have been in existence when the Portuguese arrived in the region in the late 1400s.
The arts of Asafo are displayed in public when members present their unique company colors, costumes, banners and flags. Company commanders, division captains, spokespersons, flag bearers, drummers, horn blowers, priests and priestesses take to the streets in elaborately orchestrated performances designed to proclaim the power of their Asafo company. The appliquéd designs on flags and banners are particularly important in asserting the company's history, prominence and unique capacities to protect the state.
In addition to flags, more prosperous Asafo companies have banners that may reach up to 300 feet in length. During annual Asafo festivals the banners are hung on tall poles or carried in parades. Most banners have names that are variations on 'river' or 'stream,' probably because they are thought to flow like a stream through the town.
This Asafo banner appears to be an important, pre-independence work of art. The Union Jack motif, the hand-sewn appliquéd patterns and the general condition of the cloth places it pre-1957. To the right of the Union Jack the cloth is stamped "UTC" in a double-crossed checkerboard pattern; this stands for the United Trading Company, an important pre-independence commercial operation in Ghana. Below UTC, there is additional labeling: "30008. 12 yards, Made in Germany" indicating that the cloth was imported.
The overall composition of the banner, including five large color zones, and a decorative border of contrasting triangular designs running the length of the banner, is significantly more complicated than the few that have been published or described in the literature. This banner is distinguished by an emphasis on appliquéd designs that depict the ritual aspects of Asafo companies, including male and female Asafo leaders in scenes that suggest offerings of libations and other activities around Asafo shrine houses and sacred enclosures. In the "nautical" section of the banner, there are scenes of fishing and the depiction of a steam-powered battleship that are fairly typical of Asafo flag motifs. The decorative motifs are associated with proverbial sayings and can be "read" on either side of the cloth, as they are meant to be viewed from both sides. Information on the company's emblems and membership are suggested in two sections where appliquéd letters spell out words in Fante and English that may reference a company symbol (griffon), a prayer to the ancestors for help in catching fish (Paakor menyeden) and the names of two individuals who might be the senior commander and captain of the company (Kwesie Inkoom and Esie Inkoomah). In contrast to the designs of other banners that tend to depict unrelated scenes, the appliquéd designs of this banner suggest the narrative of the Akwambo ritual--a yearly path-clearing ritual characterized by a series of offerings that culminate in a final offering at a stream or other body of water.
Nearly 45 yard long cotton, silk and synthetic fiber banner divided into five color zones: maroon, yellow, green, maroon again and blue. There is an appliquéd Union Jack--of red, white and black color areas--on the upper left side of the first panel. To the right of the Union Jack the cloth is stamped "UTC" in a double crossed checkerboard pattern. Below UTC, there is additional labeling: "30008. 12 yards, Made in Germany." Consistent with other Asafo banners and flags, the color fields of this banner are ornamented with appliquéd cloth patterns depicting humans, animals, plants, architectural structures and a steam ship. The decorative motifs can be "read" on either side of the cloth, as they are meant to be viewed from both sides. In two sections, appliquéd letters spell out words in Fante and English: "griffon," "Paakor menyeden," and "Kwesie Inkoom and Esie Inkoomah." A border of appliquéd triangles run the length of the banner, along both the top and bottom, as does a natural-color cotton cloth fringe. Hems and appliquéd pieces are attached with hand-sewn stitching. Overall, the banner is in stable condition, but sections of the cloth show some wear typical of a textile of this age.
Mr. Ibrahim Kao, Togo, collected in Agona-Swedru, Ghana, 1995-1996 to 2000
Exhibition History:
BIG/small, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., January 17-July 23, 2006
Published References:
National Museum of African Art. 2006. BIG/small Family Guide. Exhibition booklet. Washington, D.C.: National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution.
elephant  Search this
leopard  Search this
fish  Search this
bird  Search this
Leadership  Search this
boat  Search this
Writing  Search this
tree  Search this
Credit Line:
Museum purchase
Object number:
See more items in:
National Museum of African Art Collection
Data Source:
National Museum of African Art