I have visited the Ghanaian Fante Asafo flags at the Detroit Institute of Arts dozens of times. In their exquisite handwork and loaded symbolism, the flags strike a perfect balance between art and craft. But I have often wondered, What is the provenance of this form, inevitably labeled “folk art” in displays or auction catalogs? I spoke with Dr. Nii Quarcoopome, native of the Ghanaian capital of Accra, and the co–chief curator and head of the Department of Africa, Oceania and Indigenous Americas at the Detroit Institute of Arts, as well as the curator of African art at the NelsonAtkins Museum of Art, in Kansas City, Missouri. He holds a doctorate in art history from UCLA and has studied African art in the field since 1986.
—Sarah Rose Sharp
Fante Asafo flags
THE BELIEVER: I understand that the Asafo tradition involves a complex social practice that goes hand in hand with this visual-art practice of making flags and banners. Can you outline the historical and present-day role of Asafo groups for the Fante people?
DR. NII QUARCOOPOME: “Asafo” comes from the Fante term asa (“war”) and –fo (“people”). So it immediately conveys the original military history of the Asafo companies, which were formed to protect communities. You can have up to seven companies in a given town, depending on the size. As you go into the bigger towns that have now become regional capital cities, you find multiple Asafo groups with well-established traditions, membership, and inter-company rivalries. People determine their affiliation with a particular Asafo group based on their father’s membership, so if your father was a member of Asafo group number 1, both [his] sons and daughters will aspire to be members of that Asafo group.
BLVR: So they’re almost like college fraternities or something?
NQ: That’s right. When you become a member of an Asafo group, you are going to be interacting with people from all sections of society. People who enter the Asafo do not become leaders based on their station in life, so even if you come from the royal family, within the context of your Asafo you might end up working under a leader from a lower-class background. An Asafo organization is therefore one of the most democratic forms of association among the Fante people, a critical equalizer.
BLVR: Can you speak to the specific role that the flags and banners play within this culture? What aspects of identity are tied up in the creation of these flags?
NQ: Nobody knows exactly how the Asafo groups came about, whether there was a preexisting military organization based on these companies before the Europeans arrived. What we do know is that they call themselves “companies,” and they most likely adopted the use of flags from the Europeans’ use of flags in their martial arts. Over the five centuries that the coastal Fantes lived in close proximity to the European forts and castles that populate the coastline, they observed flags of different European nations flying. It is also possible that they saw Europeans carry flags into wars with local populations and that the Fante started emulating this European practice.
BLVR: Maybe there was a sense that some of that European military power was concentrated in their flags, and then these companies wanted to emulate that?
NQ: That’s right. The flag ultimately became a symbol of solidarity. It was also something that emboldened [a company’s] members, an emblem to rally around to mobilize troops in times of war. And then it was a symbol of pride, because some of the imagery illustrated on the flags speaks to the accomplishments of specific companies. For the companies, long after the interethnic wars ended, in the late nineteenth century, flag-making is still ongoing—it’s almost rhythmic for them to make a flag, retire the flag, make a new one. Old flags are displayed once in a while, because those have sentimental value, maybe due to their use in an important historic battle. Each Asafo has a system for selecting which flags to bring out on Festival Day, and it is based on the kind of message they want to send to either the community or a rival company. While the different companies collaborate to defend their town, they remain competitors and rivals in peacetime.
BLVR: And what does this festival celebrate?
NQ: It’s an annual celebration that is widely shared among the Akan communities. Indeed, throughout Ghana almost every community has a festival of renewal of sorts, and it can last anywhere from a day to a whole week, with lots of feasting, that culminates in drumming and dancing and a public display of chiefly regalia. Among the Fante, the flags are just one of several artistic forms associated with the Asafo companies; there are also elaborate cement-based architectural structures that serve as the meetinghouses of the Asafo groups.
BLVR: Right, I’ve seen pictures of some of them, with the statuary outside?
NQ: They are designed to house the company’s flags, drums, and related regalia, and it’s where you also find the shrine of its patron deity. That’s where members meet to perform secret rituals before important activities.
BLVR: So they’re sort of like Masonic temples, almost?
NQ: Yes. And in times of a local emergency, the group meets there, sometimes in the middle of the night, to strategize. Each company has a particular kind of drum music that its members can hear from afar. When the drums are played, it is considered a call to arms and its members proceed immediately to their meetinghouse.
BLVR: They’re sort of like a catchall for a lot of—I keep trying to map it onto things in American culture—it’s sort of like a volunteer fire department?
NQ: That’s right. Before the British instituted colonial rule, in 1896, the Asafo companies performed primarily military functions, protecting their communities. Since the early 1900s, however, they have taken on multiple roles: for instance, when there is a fire or when somebody drowns at sea, the Asafo members will quickly mobilize and then try to rescue the person or retrieve the body for burial. They also play key roles in the installation and funerals of chiefs, and may entertain at social functions with music and dancing. So they’ve figured out ways to stay relevant, and that has actually endeared them to their local populations, who still see them as a unifying force in society.
BLVR: I’m really curious about how much of what is depicted on a flag represents a specific mythology, how much of it is a kind of code that’s recognizable within Ghanaian culture, and how much of it is the story of a particular Asafo group.
NQ: Well, you know, all of what you’ve said is correct, because there are messages like proverbs that are easy to decode by the general public and there are specific oral histories and myths associated with particular companies that are common knowledge, but certain flag imagery may have esoteric meanings that may be known only to the members of that particular Asafo group.
BLVR: I’ve seen a number of Asafo flags, but they never seem to be attributed to a specific artist. Are there reasons for that? Who designs and executes a flag? Are they communally made?
NQ: They were not made by communities or groups of people. All the artists were very well-known in their communities and sometimes across large areas of Fante territory. They were known by their names. People actually traveled long distances to commission flags from those renowned artists. So their reputations were not tied to their respective communities alone.
BLVR: So it wasn’t necessarily someone within the Asafo making the flag for his group?
NQ: Even if that person were a member of an Asafo group, he would not have restricted himself to making flags only for his group. It was a profession, and specific flag-makers became very well-known across broad geographical areas. Somebody from a town thirty or forty miles away that had heard about the artist or had seen his work could make the trip just to commission a flag.
BLVR: But that’s interesting because I feel like mostly when I see these flags, they’re not attributed to a specific artist.
NQ: That’s very sad. It’s probably because of how we collect the flags. When Westerners buy a flag, they often don’t care to ask who made it or where it came from, so once they leave Ghana with the flag, that vital information is lost. [A flag] is very, very specific to the identity of the town from which it originated. So if I were to take it back to that town of Ogua [Cape Coast] today, and I went to the number 7 company, they would sit me down and tell me everything I wished to know about its symbolism. In contrast, many of the flags collected by Western museums and private collectors may not have that kind of information.
BLVR: Can you give me some insight into the actual making process for the flags? Is there a gendered division to the labor involved?
NQ: Men create the flags through a painstaking process of sewing by hand. It’s amazing how much time goes into a flag. The fact that the Asafo companies love to present themselves to the public as unique entities means that they are particular about colors and imagery as key indexes of identification. So they assert proprietary rights over particular symbols—so much so that the British colonial government had to intervene to prevent violence between rival companies. Against that plain background, you can see that everything appliquéd on here is mirrored on the other side.
BLVR: They mirror it on both sides!
NQ: That’s right. They cut two identical images of each symbol. So, in this example, the tree’s trunk and branches are cut two times and then hand-stitched on the front and back, bearing in mind that when the finished flag is displayed, people will need to see the message on both sides. Flag artists may choose to abbreviate inscriptions; for instance, on one flag, while making sure to depict the number 7, the artist shortens company to just c-o-y. And then you have the word Ogua—Ogua is the old name for the city that the British named Cape Coast. And so they are using the original name of Cape Coast, and Amanful, for a citizenry. It is a celebration of the people of Ogua, so to speak.
BLVR: Where do the fabrics come from? Are they repurposed, or are these new fabrics that get made into the flags?
NQ: The types of fabrics used run the spectrum. You have very expensive, prestigious fabrics like silk, velvet, and brocade, on the one hand, and very basic materials, like burlap from sacks, on the other. Some of the flags that the Asafo groups consider valuable are the ones that were made from prestigious materials. It seems like an attempt to tout the company’s superiority and prestige, as if to proclaim: We have money, we have wealth.
BLVR: Can you discuss the relationship between Asafo groups and colonial powers? That British flag strikes me as potentially a sort of cultural camouflage—are they a kind of cover for the Asafo groups to create sanctions for their existing way of life?
NQ: You don’t always see the British flag inserted, because the British were one of many European nations who had dealings with the Fante for over four hundred years. By 1900, the British had pretty much established themselves as the colonial power, and Asafo groups made a strategic decision that it was wise for them to be on the good side of the colonial authorities. But there is also an element of subversion involved, because just inserting the Union Jack in a flag is no guarantee that they supported the British.
BLVR: So it’s constantly absorbing, showing that same kind of flexibility that has continued to keep the Asafo groups relevant?
NQ: That’s right. And then the fact that Asafo groups can appropriate new images and give them new meanings to suit their purposes makes them fascinating research subjects. The British might look at a flag and see something very simple, like an anchor, and interpret it literally, but within that community the anchor might take on a whole new significance.
BLVR: So this idea that it’s folk art or something…
NQ: No, it is serious business.