Showcasing the art and ritual of the African and African-diaspora religions

Ghanaian Akwaba Figure

Catalog Number: J005


4.35" x 2.30" x 12.03"

110.38 mm x 58.53 mm x 305.62 mm

Materials: Glass
Usage: N/A
Detailed Description of Significance:

The akwaba (also spelled akuaba) is a figure carved from wood and polished to a deep black color. It is most associated with the Akan peoples—particularly the Ashanti—of Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire. As a potent symbol of fertility, the akwaba’s shape suggests ideal infant beauty. The figure’s shape brings the viewer’s eye to the akwaba’s head, the most important part of the figure and the portion with the most detail. For those figures such as this example, which represent female children—akuababere—the high forehead, small mouth, and creased neck represent traits many Akan people desire for their own female children. Other ornamentations, such as incisions and piercings, refer to beautification practices of Akan women. The beauty of the akwaba’s head does more than make the figure a joy to look at: it fosters beautiful children from those who view it. Indeed, similar head motifs appear on Akan beauty implements, such as combs. Ashanti examples tend to have rounded heads, while those of the Fante people often feature rectangular heads, especially those meant to represent male children (akuabanini).

The rounded heads of Ashanti akwaba may suggest the Akan deity Nyame due to that deity’s association with the moon. Nyame’s female aspect, as the moon, gave birth to the universe without insemination from a male partner. The round head of some akwaba also recalls the shape of an egg, another potent symbol of fertility. Most akwaba are female, a reflection of the fact that inheritance among most Akan is reckoned from the mother’s side.

In comparison, the figure’s body is more abstract: a cylindrical body (sometimes with conical breasts, naval, and buttocks indicated) and a pair of arms extended horizontally from the torso. The arms act to keep the figure from moving too much when worn against a person’s back. The typical akwaba figure has no legs or feet, a fact that emphasizes the dependency of newborn children on their mothers. Likewise, figures representing male children often have a tall but stout body and rounded features that suggest a child with good character.

In recent decades, many West African artists have embraced the tourist market, and most akwaba produced in the region today are intended for tourists and foreign art collectors. Meanwhile, mass-produced akwaba figures have appeared in Europe and North America as items of home decor or jewelry. The round akwaba’s shape is particularly amenable to mass manufacture, with its smooth curves and simple features. Other akwaba figures have become more elaborate, sporting more naturalistic faces, creative poses, and even stylish clothing. By entering these new cultural contexts, such akwaba may lose their links to fertility and instead becomes symbols of the exotic.