It is always interesting to find out the stories behind the origins of the beautiful objects I come across when sourcing for Kudu. One such example is Namji dolls which are not only stunning to look at; they also have a cultural significance. Originating from the Dowayo/ Namji ethnic group in north-west Cameroon, these dolls are talking pieces for more than their striking geometric features, multi-coloured bead necklaces and cowrie shells. Given to encourage fertility, these dolls are made for young girls to play with, strapping them to their backs and carrying them around to mirror the responsibility of their mothers. The dolls are also kept by women for good luck when trying to fall pregnant or provide for an easy childbirth. Antique and authentic Namji dolls can go for high sums at auctions houses and are highly sought after by collectors. Considered to be some of the finest dolls in Africa, we are excited to have sourced some beautiful contemporary versions. Made by hand, each one is different and they all seem to convey their own personality.
Another example of fascinating stories behind folk art is that of Asafao flags. The Akan culture of Ghana had Asafo warrior groups to defend the state. On the Gold Coast it was the Fante people who as a result of contact with European colonial powers incorporated some European elements into their existing complex system of peoples’ militias or ‘companies’. These also had a social and political standing and there were elaborate flags associated with each company. The flags were and are used on special occasions, such as births, deaths celebrations and inaugurations.
Sadly, I am not stocking any of these flags but that doesn’t stop me from putting these on my list of items I love. With their bright colours and vivid embroidered images the original flags are becoming much-sought-after as historical items but also as beautiful works of art. There is some debate about ‘authenticity’ that always applies when collecting cultural artefacts from the African continent. The general rule is: if it has been used in the context and for the purpose for which it was made then it is ‘authentic’. If it has been specifically made for sale it is not ‘authentic’ but that does not mean that it cannot also be of good quality or worth of purchase. Recent versions of Fante flags made for sale can also provide jobs and keep a cultural tradition alive. Beware though, of flags specifically made recently for sale being sold as antique or ‘authentic’. If you are interested in purchasing these, do your homework first.
Themes for Asafo/Fante flags often include parables or aphorisms, as well as taunts intended to relay a message to enemies about the bravery or strength of the company. @asafoflags is a beautiful Instagram account where you can see examples of Asafo flags as well as the saying that accompanies each flag.
I am by no means an expert and have only recently started to read more about Asafo flags, so apologies to any Ghanaians reading this who might wish to correct any unintentional errors in my writing. I merely wish to convey my admiration for an artform and historically significant element of Ghanaian culture.
There is an exhibition of Asafo flags at the Mingei Museum in San Diego which runs until July. If you are there, then please go and let us know what you think.