The Memorial Portraits of the Akan people (Ghana)

In the second half of the 1500s in Ghana, the Akan people created clay sculptures of heads. These sculptures, made by women, would be used to remember the dead. Ordinary people and royalty would use this method of remembrance. During certain parts of the year, prayers and offerings would be made to the ancestors through these sculptures. In this article, you will learn more about rituals of remembering the dead, and how these clay sculptures would function in society.

WHAT ARE THE MEMORIAL PORTRAITS?

The Asante people belong to the Akan culture and language group in Ghana, although the Asante Kingdom emerged in the late 17th century. The Asante people express their beliefs about death and the afterlife through the use of clay. Terracotta (a type of red or brown coloured clay) is the typical kind of clay used. Terracotta would be used to make either a vessel (cup or bowl), or a clay head called nsodie. Nsodie can be seen as a memorial portrait of someone who has recently died (a memorial is that which honours the memory of something). The sculptors were women.

HOW ARE THE NSODIE USED?

From the second half of the 1500s, the Akan women sculptors would create clay head sculptures. These clay head sculptures would be used to memorialize the dead. The Asante continued and preserved this tradition.

There are two kinds of nsodie, one for ordinary people and one for royalty. The vessel would be for ordinary people. The nsodie heads were made for royalty. The nsodie would be painted black, because black is believed to be a colour associated with the afterlife and spiritual strength.

The nsodie for royalty would not always look exactly as the person did. Often, the features of the face would represent positive qualities (parts of a personality) rulers are expected to have. The nsodie would be placed in cemeteries, in a sacred place called an asensie. The nsodie of royalty would be surrounded by sculptures of their servants to give comfort in the afterlife. During certain times of the year, the asensie and the nsodie would be the focus of prayers and offerings in exchange for support from the ancestors.

WHAT DOES A MEMORIAL PORTRAIT LOOK LIKE?

If an ordinary person died, their family would ask a sculptress to make a vessel out of clay. The style of the vessel can be very different depending on the sculptress. The vessels would often be decorated with reliefs (designs that are pushed into the material and look 3D). The nsodie, or the sculptures of the royal heads, also look different. They can be flat, wide and circular, or hollow and lifesize. What is most important is that they reflect the good qualities of the deceased, so that they can be remembered with honour.

Marwin Ramos

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