Adinkra - more than just a pretty face

What is Adinkra? I put that question to friends and family recently expecting some consistency in the response. But I was surprised by how varied the replies were and how complex and mysterious the Adinkra story is.
Aya (Fern) means defiance, endurance © MisBeee

 Writes

According to the majority of people I polled, Adinkra is the umbrella term for ideographic symbols that relate to historical events, philosophy and spiritual beliefs of the Akan people. These symbols make use of flora, fauna and shapes to depict age-old maxims and sayings.

I have read diverging accounts that these symbols number 400, while others suggest the total is nearer 1,000. Robert Sutherland Rattray in 1927 formally recorded a sample of around 50 in his book 'Religion and Art in Ashanti' but since then more have emerged to incorporate modern phenomena, which scholar G.F.Kojo Arthur records in his book 'Cloth as Metaphor Re-reading the Adinkra Cloth Symbols of the Akan of Ghana'. 

Although Adinkra has long been associated with the Asantes of Ghana (one strand of the Akan people) - their origins are believed to stem from the former Brong kingdom of Gyaaman in what is now known as Côte d’Ivoire. 

The legends
One of many stories linked to the origins of Adinkra is that the then Gyaamanhene – Kwadwo Adinkra (also pronounced Adinkera) wore cloth imprinted with these symbols.
Legend has it that the Gyaamanhene copied the Asante’s Sika ‘dwa or Golden Stool – the Asante’s symbol of national unity. This angered the Asantehene and resulted in the Asante-Gyaaman War of 1818. I have also heard that the Asantes had designs on acquiring these symbols for themselves, which could have been a contributing reason for the ensuing battle.

Whatever the cause, the war ended with the Asantes, led by Asantehene Nana Osei Bonsu, capturing the Gyaamanhene, annexing his kingdom to Asante land and – as the story goes – taking his prized cloth as a trophy, thus acquiring the secrets of the Adinkra cloth. Other versions suggest the Gyaamanhene’s son Apau was spared the same fate of ultimate death as his father because he accepted the ultimatum of relinquishing the secrets of creating the symbols. 

Mysterious origins
It is unclear if the word Adinkra existed before the Gyaamanhene or if the symbols acquired their name from the Gyaaman ruler who popularised the prints. But there are some who claim the symbols date farther back than the 19th century.

According to a paper by William Babbitt et al called ‘Adinkra Mathematics: A study of Ethnocomputing in Ghana’, the suggestion is that these symbols and geometric forms existed in older archaeological artefacts across a wider geographic range.

There are others that believe that when the Sika ‘dwa fell from heaven into the lap of Ɔkͻmfoͻ Anͻkye – the priest credited for helping to establish the Asante kingdom in the 17th century – it was covered with a cloth bearing the Adinkra symbols that we know today.

What’s in a name?
Adding more mystery to the origins of Adinkra is that the word shares an uncanny resemblance to the Akan phrase: ‘Yε di nkra’, which means to bid someone farewell. Apt when you consider that, according to another legend, subjects of the Adinkra king designed a cloth for him following his defeat to the Asantes. The printed symbols signified their grief and sorrow.

For centuries after in Ghana, cotton cloth adorned with these Adinkra symbols came to be known as Adinkra cloth. This cloth was worn during funerals by royalty and spiritual leaders to commemorate the dead.

Once the Asante’s mastered the technique of printing the symbols and found the special ink and stamping that was used in the printing process, manufacture grew. The three most important funerary cloths being the kuntunkuni (brown), the kobene (red) and the brisi (black), Valentina A Tetteh writes in ‘Adinkra – Cultural Symbols of the Asanteland people’. 

Evolution
This tradition lives on today except all Ghanaians – not just the royals – wear such cloths. Use of these symbols has expanded to feature on lighter coloured cloths that are appropriate for festive occasions or even daily wear, Tetteh writes.

The Okun Ali Adinkra Swim Shorts on sale on johnlewis.com

While the roots of Adinkra may be unclear, what is evident is fascination in these age-old symbols continues in and outside Ghana.

A quick scour of the net and it is evident that whatever you can think up, there is an Adinkra symbol adorning it. The most obvious – outside dresswear – include jewellery, paintings, sculpture, and architecture. But the list includes business logos, greeting cards, tattoos and even hairstyles. I even saw British high street retailer John Lewis selling swimming shorts with the symbol boa me na me boa wo (help me then I will help you), which they had renamed under the brand Okun Ali Adinkra!

Most recently, Adinkra has inspired an art exhibition by Ghanaian-British architect David Adjaye. The work is a celebration of traditional textiles from West and Central Africa and the interplay with modernist architecture. The exhibit is at the Cooper-Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum in New York until February 2016.


Wooden Sankofa symbol image © MisBeee Writes
But Adinkra is much more than just a set of aesthetically pleasing pictorial symbols. The signs have a religious dimension that has been largely lost through the dominance of Christianity. The famous mminnsuro obiaa gye Nyame (I fear no one except God), originally referred to courage. It was later adopted by Ghanaian Christians to mean the power of God and a symbol of their faith, according to Boatema Boateng, author of ‘The Copyright Thing Doesn’t Work Here: Adinkra and Kente Cloth and Intellectual Property in Ghana.'

Even epa – which was linked to equality, law and justice, according to Valentina Tetteh, has morphed to signify the changes to history post the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. In her publication the symbol means: Ɔnii a me pa da wonsa no, na n'akoa ne wo (you are the slave to the one whose handcuffs you are wearing).

Copyright and ownership
This degree of flexibility in Adinkra meaning and application to physical objects is likely to be one of the reasons it has garnered such wide appeal across the globe. For many African Americans and Caribbeans, it provides them with a link back to their ancestral roots and is a celebration of Black pride.

Interestingly, this idea of ownership is something that Boatema Boateng discusses in her book - ‘The Copyright Thing Doesn’t Work Here: Adinkra and Kente Cloth and Intellectual Property in Ghana’. On the one hand, we are dealing with a set of symbols that we cannot reliably trace back to one owner. And yet, through the passage of time, these symbols have been appropriated by so many. This situation challenges - to a degree - the notion of ownership and copyright, particularly when financial benefits from developing Adinkra-inspired designs generally do not trickle back to the area of origin. 
Gye Nyame-inspired outfit © MisBeee Writes

Adinkra and maths
Even today within Ghana, there also seems to be a reawakening to the holistic value of Adinkra symbolism. A report in 2004 by Ghana’s Ministry of Education, concluded that junior high students scored far below other countries in such areas of maths including algebra and geometry. Research conducted by Babbitt et al between 2010 and 2014, suggested this could be remedied if Ghanaian students were able to use culturally familiar tools – such as Adinkra symbols - that have geometry and other facets of maths embedded in them to help them learn. 

Their initial investigations suggested there was an improvement in their scores. But what was even more illuminating is the research was based on the foundations of logarithmic curves that are found in symbolic representations of organic growth, such as fern (see image above). This has long been considered the preserve of Western mathematicians but it appears this knowledge was practised in Ghana long before Western influence, according to Babbitt et al.


Fabric Gateaux socks featuring some of the Adinkra symbols
 Adinkra and language
This research raises questions as to why this knowledge of Adinkra is not more widely used. It also provides further room to explore why, for so long, these symbols have not been recognised as a communication tool. Afterall, cloths were specifically made upon the death of individuals to preserve farewell messages to the departed. 
For years, scholars such as John DeFrancis and Walter J.Ong have claimed that writing systems that are not phonetic are in some way inferior, (see juliusboadu.blogspot.co.uk, and Jasmine Danzy) The assumption being that because Adinkra does not record single phonetic sounds, it is not on a par with the Western alphabet, for example. And yet academicians have spent hundreds of years, millions of pounds and dedicated degrees to deciphering the ideographic symbols that are the Egyptian hieroglyphics.

I started this piece trying to find the origins of these wonderful symbols known as Adinkra. And although their roots remain unclear, what is evident is that these signifers of nature and humanity are as relevant today as they were in their beginnings. And even though their ultimate creator is not known, I believe that in celebrating their on-going significance and relevance we are inadvertently paying homage to their creator(s). But is that enough?  

by Kirsty Osei-Bempong.

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