Traditional Arts of the Akan States

Akan cultures possess a number of artistic traditions, mainly in metalworking, weaving, storytelling, and woodcarving. Their most visible artform is kente, a textile woven from silk, cotton, or rayon threads. Kente fabrics grew popular in the 17th century and are often associated with Osei Tutu I, the founder of the Ashanti Empire. Stories of its precise origin vary between different Akan groups and neighboring cultures like the Ewe. In Akan societies, kente weaving is reserved for men alone. Each color represents a specific trait or value. Yellow, for example, is the color of gold and therefore royalty. Kente was originally worn only by kings, queen mothers, and their royal families, but its usage has expanded to formal occasions among common people. Adinkra, another textile art form, uses ink and stamps to decorate fabrics with adinkra symbols. Each symbol conveys a proverb, a mark of distinction and education among the Akan.

Male craftsmen also worked with metals, primarily gold and brass. Skilled trades like goldsmithing belonged to members of certain families, who passed their knowledge down to eligible sons and nephews. Their work required both practical skill, knowledge of philosophy, and respect for the divine energy of the metal. Women born into these families wove baskets and created ceramics instead. Their most distinctive pieces were finely sculpted terracotta funerary heads. These figures represented honored figures in death and were placed in sacred groves after burial. There they maintained a connection between the living and the dead, receiving offerings and prayers from future generations.

Besides their practical arts, the Akan also told many stories and performed music accompanied by dances. Their most popular stories told tales of Anansi, the spider trickster who embodied skill and wisdom. In fact, it was Anansi who freed all stories from the supreme Akan deity, Nyame the Sky Father. Spider stories taught children important lessons about the world and grew to encompass much of the Akan oral literature. Anansi remained a popular folk hero among slave populations in the Americas, influencing later folk stories like those starring Br’er Rabbit.

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