At first glance, she looks like a simple wooden doll with no feet and a large disk-shaped head. However, the small African figure in the collection of the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation is much more than a child’s plaything. Known as an akua’ba and produced in the 19th century out of a rich cultural history, it once symbolized a young Ashanti woman’s hopes and dreams for a child of her own.
The Ashanti (Asante) are part of the Akan ethnic group that developed as an empire in the late 17th century in what is now the West African nation of Ghana. Through trade in gold, ivory and slaves—first with the Portuguese and then other European nations—the Ashanti people became rich and powerful, enabling them to remain independent through the 18th century. Their indigenous cultural traditions have remained strong into the present day.
In the Ashanti matrilineal society, motherhood is highly valued and emphasized as fundamental to female gender roles. Childbirth is a rite of passage expected of all young women, as it is necessary to have descendants to ultimately attain life as an ancestor in the spirit world. In the past, Ashanti women who had difficulties conceiving relied on the power of a carved wooden akua’ba that had been consecrated by a priest. This good-luck charm for pregnancy was traditionally produced by male woodcarvers in a conventional form to reflect the Akan ideal of feminine beauty. Those qualities include a high, flattened forehead representing wisdom and a long ringed neck symbolizing rolls of body fat, a sign of health and prosperity. Most akua’ba, like the one in the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation collection, also have short horizontal arms, breasts, navels and no feet. Eyes are depicted as half-moons with eyebrows arching above them and connecting to the top of a thin elongated nose.
The practice of using wooden female effigies as power objects developed from an ancient Akan legend about a woman named Akua who was having difficulty getting pregnant. A local priest, who in the Ashanti religion served as the conduit for the spiritual world of ancestors and lesser gods, advised her to have a small wooden carving of a child made by the local male woodcarvers. She was then instructed to carry the figure on her back in a cloth wrapper and care for it just as she would for a real baby. She was to symbolically feed it and present it with gifts, such as the bead necklace on the one in the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation collection. As the story goes, Akua’s community mocked her surrogate child until the day she gave birth to a healthy baby girl. Thereafter, women began to believe in the power of the akua’ba as a successful aid to fertility, and the practice became widely adopted.
Traditionally, akua’ba figures were the most common products of Ashanti woodcarvers and now, thanks to a resurgent interest in African art beginning in the mid-20th century, they are still being made and are among the best-known African art forms in America. Today, Ghanaian workshops carving akua’ba for the souvenir and export markets are producing both indigenous forms bound by tradition and new forms altered to increase their marketability globally. They are often used as exotic home décor and even have been spotted as a prop in the television sitcom “Will and Grace”! Separated from their cultural ethos, whether sitting in an American living room or displayed in a museum case, these akua’ba figures no longer embody the emotional pang of a woman yearning for a child. But we should all remember what these objects represent—a yearning, a longing, not confined to the Ashanti or to Africa, but that can be understood by the global society of women who are wishing for motherhood.
The akua’ba figure is on exhibit in the African Object Theater of the Jamestown Settlement Gallery.
Bly Straube, Ph.D., FSA
Senior Curator, Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation
Ray Y. Gildea, Jr. (1963) ‘Religion in the Ashanti Province of Ghana,” Social Science 38:4, pp. 209-212.
Peri Klemm, “Akua’ba Female Figure (Akan Peoples),” Khan Academy. https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/art-africa/west-africa/ghana/a/akuaba-female-figure-akan-peoples
Malcolm D. McLeod (1981) The Asante. London: British Museum Publications.
Doran H. Ross (1996) “Akua’s Child and Other Relatives: New Mythologies for Old Dolls,” Isn’t S/he a Doll: Play and Ritual in African Sculpture, edited by Elisabeth L. Cameron. Los Angeles: UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History. http://www.randafricanart.com/Akuas_child_asante_akuaba_dolls.html
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