Asafo flags

The Akan proverb communicated by the flag is “We came to fight, but not you birds.” In other words, the asafo company conveys that its enemies are weak like birds and not worth fighting. Flag, first half of the 20th century (Fante people), textile, 111.76 x 182.24 cm (The George Washington University Museum and The Textile Museum, Washington, D.C.)

The Akan proverb communicated by the flag is “We came to fight, but not you birds.” In other words, the asafo company conveys that its enemies are weak like birds and not worth fighting. Flag, first half of the 20th century (Fante people), textile, 111.76 x 182.24 cm (The George Washington University Museum and The Textile Museum, Washington, D.C.)

Through their symbolic colors and imagery, an asafo flag makes a statement about a military company’s identity and history, or about its rivals and enemies.

In most surviving and contemporary examples, the national flags of Ghana or the United Kingdom are present in the flags of military companies, known as asafo, among the Fante people and other Akan-speaking peoples. [1] Each Fante town has anywhere from two to fourteen asafo companies. [2] Historically, asafo companies acted as the militia and police for Fante towns. Today, they ensure the safety and well-being of their communities through various political, social, and religious functions, such as participating in state ceremonies, member funerals, and annual gatherings. During such events, a trained member of the company (frankaakitanyi) carries and dances with a flag, known as frankaa (mfrankaa for plural). These flags signify the company’s identity and are considered sacred.

A statue of Supi Kwamina Essilfie stands in front of the asafo company shrine or posuban, 2015, Elmina, Ghana (photo: David Stanley, CC BY-SA 2.0)

A statue of Supi Kwamina Essilfie stands in front of the asafo company shrine or posuban, 2015, Elmina, Ghana (photo: David Stanley, CC BY-SA 2.0)

During ceremonies and gatherings, asafo companies hang and display their flags on flag poles, which are key features of company shrines, or mposuban (singular: posuban). Mposuban range from “simple structures, such as a fenced tree or a mound of rocks covered by the shell of a giant marine turtle,” to more monumental structures, such as the one pictured above. [3] Overall, they are important to asafo companies, as they are the dwelling places of companies’ deities. They serve other purposes, such as ritual and storage space, a meeting place for ceremonial occasions, and a signpost indicating the companies’ presence and territory.

The posuban above belongs to the asafo company, Akyem, in Elmina, Ghana. It consists of a two-story building with balconies on the second floor and on the roof; a banner (to the left) bearing the company’s name, number (two), and location; and the statues in front. It is important to note that this company’s asafo flag is not present in the photograph.

According to art historian and anthropologist Samuel Adwenti Bentum, this posuban was constructed in 1969 under Supi (senior commander) Kwamina Essilfie, who is portrayed as the statue on the highest pedestal in the middle. He is draped in blue, the color associated with this asafo company (which is also on the outer walls of the structure). Supi Kwamina Essilfie’s statue is flanked by two individuals: to the left is a woman, dressed in a white skirt tied across the waist, carrying on her head the asafo deity called Obo; to the right is a man (dressed in a similar fashion) carrying the asafo deity known as Akontsinbew. Next to these statues are replicas of airplanes on pedestals. These airplanes echo the eagle that is portrayed at the stop of the structure. Associated with Akyem asafo company, the eagle (and by extension, the airplanes or “iron birds”) convey their strength and ability to protect the community. Behind these statues of a woman and man carrying the deities are two other figures that cannot be seen in the photograph. One holds a gun, while the other blows a horn. [4]

While posuban are impressive, imposing visual displays, asafo companies generally take the most pride in their flags.

Asafo flag, early 20th century (Fante people), silk, hand-stitched and embroidered, 109.2 x 180.3 cm (Detroit Institute of Arts)

Asafo flag, early 20th century (Fante people), silk, hand-stitched and embroidered, 109.2 x 180.3 cm (Detroit Institute of Arts)

Materials and motifs of asafo flags

Asafo flags are appliqué, embroidered, or painted. They are generally 3 by 5 feet or 4 by 6 feet, but can be as long as 300 feet. Workshops make asafo flags in collaboration with company members who decide the flag’s composition, colors, and statement. [5] A variety of fabrics can be used for these flags, such as cotton, silk, rayon, and velvet. Swatches of fabric are stitched on a larger base fabric (which is usually a solid color) to create depictions of people, animals, and objects that, in conjunction, usually refer to a local proverb or historical event, or make a statement about the company itself. Flag messages may be ambiguous or difficult to interpret, especially to non-local audiences. Additional details, such as the asafo company’s number, may be added.

The asafo flag above includes the text, “No 7 Co.” stitched in yellow in the bottom left corner (the reverse side of the flag also has the company’s number stitched into it). The background color of this flag is deep red, outlined with a golden yellow border. In the upper left corner is a stylized, square rendition of the Union Jack (another name for the British national flag). The inclusion of the Union Jack on many surviving and contemporary asafo flags will be explained below.  In the foreground are two people (one of whom is carrying a rifle, while the other carries an object that is clearly not a gun) who point these objects towards a large tortoise and snail in the upper middle and right of the flag. According to art historian and curator Nii O. Quarcoopome, the imagery in this flag refers to the Akan proverb, “If the snail and tortoise were the only animals in the forest, the hunter would have no need to carry a gun.” [6] In other words, the flag’s message is that the use of arms is not always called for.

Johannes Kip, Prospects with European Flags on the West African coast, 1732 (Fort Crevecoeur at Accra, Fort Christiaenburgh at Accra, Cape Ruygehoeck, and the Coast of Lay), engraving on paper, 26 x 19 cm (Koninklijke Bibliotheek, The Hague)

Johannes Kip, Prospects with European Flags on the West African coast, 1732 (Fort Crevecoeur at Accra, Fort Christiaenburgh at Accra, Cape Ruygehoeck, and the Coast of Lay), engraving on paper, 26 x 19 cm (Koninklijke Bibliotheek, The Hague)

History of asafo flags

Asafo flags are inspired by European models and can be traced back to as early as the 16th century, when European trading companies set up forts along Ghana’s coastline (Ghana was known then as the Gold Coast, named for its plentiful gold). [7] This lithograph engraving depicts two examples of these forts with the Dutch and Danish national flags at Accra, the capital of present-day Ghana.

Historical accounts from travelers to the Gold Coast in the 17th and 18th centuries reference asafo companies and their flags. In the 19th century, asafo companies began to utilize the flag more widely and incorporate the Union Jack into their designs to signify their allegiance to the British. The Fante relied on British support because another rival Akan-speaking people, the Asante, repeatedly attacked the Fante for access to the coast. In the early decades of the 18th century, the Dutch aligned themselves with the Asante, while the British strengthened ties with the Fante. Nevertheless, the British maintained a relationship with the Asante, though it was often strained, as they did not want to lose access to the gold that the Asante provided.

Asafo flag, c. 1863 (Fante people), appliquéd and embroidered cloth, 114.3 x 186.7 cm (with fringe) (Detroit Institute of Arts)

Asafo flag, c. 1863 (Fante people), appliquéd and embroidered cloth, 114.3 x 186.7 cm (with fringe) (Detroit Institute of Arts)

Asafo companies had relied on the British and in some instances acted as reinforcements for British troops. However, asafo companies’ attitudes toward the British under colonial rule were complex. To contain fights that would break out between asafo companies, the British imposed restrictions on them. For instance, the British regulated the colors and symbols asafo companies could use for their flags. The asafo flag above from 1863 reflects one company’s position towards the British. It portrays eight people pulling a net that has captured a big fish. According to Nii O. Quarcoopome, this flag can be interpreted as a subtle warning to the British: when asafo members come together, they could trap and take over a European fort (symbolized by the fish). [8]

The Akan proverb communicated by flag is “We can carry water in a basket using cactus as a head cushion.” Cacti are associated with danger in asafo flags, so the message conveyed is that this company can do what is dangerous (carry the cactus) and threaten its enemies. Flag, mid-20th century (Fante people), textile, 111.76 x 157.48 cm (The George Washington University Museum and The Textile Museum, Washington, D.C.)

The Akan proverb communicated by flag is “We can carry water in a basket using cactus as a head cushion.” Cacti are associated with danger in asafo flags, so the message conveyed is that this company can do what is dangerous (carry the cactus) and threaten its enemies. Flag, mid-20th century (Fante people), textile, 111.76 x 157.48 cm (The George Washington University Museum and The Textile Museum, Washington, D.C.)

International market for asafo flags

The late art historian and curator Doran H. Ross observed that the 1992 publication and traveling exhibition, Asafo!: African Flags of the Fante, was so incredibly popular that it led to the mass production of asafo flags for international markets. Although there have been earlier publications and exhibitions on asafo flags, the 1992 Asafo! publication was made available in Ghana and inspired workshops to create copies of existing flags. [9] To make flags appear older and more “authentic” (that is, used by asafo companies, and thus fetch higher prices), creators might reuse fabric from existing, worn-out flags; use new fabric but artificially age and distress it; or add the Union Jack to make it look like a flag had been created before 1957. When Ghana gained independence in 1957, asafo companies replaced the British national flag with the Ghanaian one, as seen in the asafo flag above.

Besides the Asafo! publication and exhibition, the availability of asafo flags for sale on the internet sites like eBay has also led to their international sale and consumption. While asafo flags are still used today by asafo companies, today, many more are being created to be sold internationally.

Notes:

[1] Asafo comes from sa (“war”) and fo (“people”). See Silvia Forni and Doran H. Ross, Art, Honor, and Ridicule: Fante Asafo Flags from Southern Ghana (Toronto: Royal Ontario Museum, 2016), p. 26.

[2] Silvia Forni, “An Unwavering Passion: Doran Ross’s Scholarship on Asafo Flags,” African Arts, volume 55, number 1 (2022), pp. 26–27.; Silvia Forni, “Of Patterns and Markets: The Making and Unmaking of Asafo Flags,”Critical Interventions, volume 12, number 1 (2018), pp. 23–24.

[3] Forni and Ross (2016), p. 29.

[4] The photograph of the Akyem asafo company’s posuban included in this essay lacks some of the details discussed by Samuel Bentum Adwenti. For more on this posuban, see Samuel Bentum Adentwi,” Cultural Significance of Edina Asafo Company Posts” (Ph.D. dissertation, Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, 2006), pp. 140–54.

[5] According to Silvia Forni, asafo flags are supposed to be made only by men, in secret, and at night so that asafo companies do not know what their competitors’ flags are. In practice, however, sometimes the flags are made by women, out in the open, and during the day. See Forni (2018), pp. 28–29.

[6] Quoted in Nii O. Quarcoopome, “Akan Ceremonial Cloths, Costumes, and Flags,” Bulletin of the Detroit Institute of Arts, volume 91, number 14 (2017), p. 69.

[7] The Portuguese were the first to build these forts along the coast in the 15th century. The oldest of these forts, known today as Elmina Castle, was built in 1482. In the following centuries, the Portuguese fought other Europeans (Danish, Dutch, British, Swedish, French, and Prussians) for control over the trading forts. Elmina Castle was taken over by the Dutch in the 17th century and later by the British in the 19th century. It was a major site where enslaved peoples were trafficked through before crossing the Atlantic Ocean. See Forni and Ross (2016), pp. 22–23.

[8] Quarcoopome (2017), p. 71.

[9] Asafo!: African Flags of the Fante was published by collector and dealer, Peter Alder, and writer, Nicolas Barnard. For earlier publications and exhibitions on asafo flags, see Doran H. Ross, “True colours, faux flags, and tattered sales,” African Arts, volume 43, number 2 (2010), p. 1.

 

Gus Casely-Hayford – Asafo Flags: Stitches Through Time from HENI Talks on YouTube.

Gus Casely-Hayford traces the history of Asafo Flags, unique textiles from Ghana. He draws upon his own personal and historical perspectives to help us understand the lasting relevance of these cultural artefacts.

Featuring national symbols alongside local motifs, Asafo Flags conjure a vibrant past. Whilst flagging familial identity, they also served to signal existing military allegiances with arriving European forces in the 16th century. In ‘a glorious defiance against time’, these flags provide ‘a visual metaphor for what community could mean.’

 

Curator Gus Casely-Hayford looks at the origins and history of the Asafo flags, made by the Fante people of the Gold Coast of Africa, now known as Ghana. Charting, mapping and surveying oceans, coasts, land and resources were essential tools of Empire.


Additional resources

Samuel Bentum Adentwi, “Cultural Significance of Edina Asafo Company Posts” (Ph.D. dissertation, Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, 2006).

Silvia Forni, “An Unwavering Passion: Doran Ross’s Scholarship on Asafo Flags,” African Arts, volume 55, number 1 (2022), pp. 26–28.

Silvia Forni and Doran H. Ross, Art, Honor, and Ridicule: Fante Asafo Flags from Southern Ghana (Toronto: Royal Ontario Museum, 2016).

Silvia Forni, “Of Patterns and Markets: The Making and Unmaking of Asafo Flags,” Critical Interventions, volume 12, number 1 (2018), pp. 22–35.

Kwame Amoah Labi, “Enjoy the Dance and Look for the Flag Meaning: Asafo Flag Dancers’ Choreography of Concealing and Revealing,” Ghana Studies, volume 25, number 25 (2022), pp. 134–43.

Courtnay Micots, “Griffins, Crocodiles, and the British Ensign: Kweku Kakanu’s Asafo Flags and Followers,” Africa Interweave, edited by Susan Cooksey (Gainesville: Samuel P. Harn Museum of Art, 2011), pp. 142–44.

Nii O. Quarcoopome, “Akan Ceremonial Cloths, Costumes, and Flags,” Bulletin of the Detroit Institute of Arts, volume 91, number 14 (2017), pp. 54–73.

Nii O. Quarcoopome, “The Detroit Institute of Arts,” African Arts, volume 36, number 4 (2003), pp. 72–80.

Doran H. Ross, “‘Come and try’: Towards a History of Fante Military Shrines,” African Arts, volume 40, number  3 (2007), pp. 12–35.

Doran H. Ross, “True colours, faux flags, and tattered sales,” African Arts, volume 43, number 2 (2010), pp. 1–7.

Cite this page as: Dr. Kristen Laciste, "Asafo flags," in Smarthistory, July 17, 2023, accessed May 18, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/asafo-flags/.