Thirty years ago I decided to visit Ghana. As an artist I wanted to see for myself the rich culture of African art. I am still there and still discovering. In Africa, until recently, art was not made to be decorative. Everything had a function and was seen in the context of the culture. The textile traditions are especially strong and must be studied in historical perspective, because they all have a story to tell.
The indigenous weaving technique is called kente, and just by looking at it you know that it is special and significant. At one a time this woven cloth was reserved for kings and chiefs.The yellow threads were real gold. The Ashanti King set up the weaving village of Bonwire, which is still a vibrant weaving community, and brought the best weavers to weave only for his court. Today anyone who can afford it can buy kente although some patterns are still reserved for royalty. The Ewe, another Ghanaian ethnic group, also weave kente. The Ewe cloth is cotton and usually has symbols and figures woven into it, whereas the Ashanti cloth is apt to be rayon with geometric designs. Which group wove kente first? Ah, that depends on who you ask!
Many African - Americans proudly wear strips of kente as stoles to signify their African heritage. Kente in Ghana is worn by men like a toga and it’s made of many strips sewn together. Women wear a smaller piece, sometimes wrapped as a skirt, but it is also made of strips sewn together.
Another indigenous cloth, adinkra, is worn mostly by the Ashanti--over the left shoulder toga style. It can be woven or it’s made from commercial cotton cloth and traditionally it is stamped with symbols that have meanings (carved from pieces of calabash). adinkra is a funeral cloth. There are variations on the story of its origins. Adi means to depart and kra means message in the Ashanti language. The Ashanti believe that the person who died is going to another world, so the mourners wore a cloth with symbols that sent a message that was carried along to the people who had already passed. When worn as a funeral cloth adinkra is black, red or brown. The symbols, which are always black, can also be printed on brightly colored backgrounds and worn for other special occasions.
Asafo companies are found in villages around Cape Coast. There was a time when villages went to war against each other and there would be a man at the head of the war party waving a flag and encouraging his followers to be brave, strong, and so forth. These Asafo flags, up to ten feet in length, and they are spectacular pieces of art. They are appliqued with pieces of recycled cloth and often interpret African proverbs. Although no longer going to war, the Asafo are still active social groups, have impressive shrines and festivals where they “dance the flag.”
Something common to all indigenous art in Ghana is that it is changing. Adinkra which has always been stamped is now being silk screened. Why? It’s faster and cheaper. Kente looks very different now and no longer does a weaver spend many months weaving one piece. You can’t blame the artisans for trying to make a living, but how do we preserve the wonderful history and culture that’s unique to Ghana? One way is to show the Ghanaian artisans that their work has value and is appreciated.
When it became clear to me that I was going to be researching and promoting the African artisans for a long time, I started an educational non-profit, named it Cross Cultural Collaborative that provides an atmosphere where every age, gender, and skill level can interact. We started workshops to introduce outsiders to the wonders of indigenous Ghana, and address the many levels of cultural preservation, understanding and global perspective as related to Africans and westerners who are interested in cultural awareness. We believe that everyone is a student and a teacher, both giving and receiving equally. Each summer we offer “African Memories”. This is an opportunity to spend two creative weeks at our cultural center in Ghana working with Ghanaian artisans and learning the techniques that have been in their families for centuries.
Ellie Schimelman is president of Cross Cultural Collaborative. She has always been attracted to African art, and took her first trip to Ghana in 1978. Since then she has returned many times to research and study traditional crafts, do volunteer teaching, and take people on crafts and culturally centered tours of Ghana. She now devotes herself full-time to directing Cross Cultural Collaborative, Inc. and facilitating workshops held at its cultural center in Ghana. For more information about the workshops, please visit http://www.culturalcollaborative.org.