The importance of motherhood in Africa has encouraged the creation and use of fertility figures throughout many different cultures. The Akan-related cultures of what is today southern Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire, such as the Asante and the Fante, have created the akua’ba figure (plural akua’ma) to help infertile women become pregnant.
The creation of the akua’ba is based on the legend of Akua. Akua was a young woman who struggled to conceive a child, so she went to a religious specialist who told her to commission a figure of a beautiful child from a woodcarver. She had a figure made and returned to the religious specialist, who blessed the figure and told Akua to treat it as a real child. The other people in the community saw Akua carrying the figure in her wrapper like a baby and pretending to feed it, and they mocked her, calling the figure akua’ba, which means “Akua’s child.” However, Akua then became pregnant and gave birth to a beautiful female child, and the practice of making akua’ma soon caught on.
Traditional akua’ma are made in the form of an idealized, beautiful young woman, as the Akan-related cultures are matrilineal and many mothers hope for a female child who will survive to adulthood and carry on the family line. The figures represent the beauty standards of the Akan, with high foreheads, curving eyebrows, almond-shaped eyes, a straight nose, and pursed lips. The Asante version of these figures have round or oval heads, which are also seen as beautiful. The akua’ma bodies are generally simplified, with a columnar torso, cone-shaped arms, and no hands, legs, or feet. They do have protruding female breasts, however, and they often have protruding navels and scarification marks on the cheeks.
Successful akua’ma may be returned to the diviner in gratitude, to be placed on a shrine as an offering. They can also be passed on to other female family members, either to a girl as an educational toy to learn childcare, or to an adult who wishes to conceive. And, in the event that a child has died, the akua’ba can be kept as a memorial for the child.
The growing appreciation for African art starting in the late 20th century has resulted in a growing demand for new art forms. This demand, primarily from tourists, has fostered the creation of new art forms as well as the alteration of existing forms of art to appeal to the tourist trade. These changes have led to the transformation of akua’ma figures, both in terms of design and function, and to the development of new objects with akua’ba–like features.
This figure is the closest representation of a traditional Asante akua’ba among this group of five objects. However, there are subtle differences from traditional akua’ma: While the figure has a high forehead; curving eyebrows; a small, straight nose; large, almond-shaped eyes; and tightly pursed lips, this akua’ba differs from many traditional akua’ma in that it does not having markings on the cheeks to represent scarification tattoos, and it is missing an accentuated navel. In addition, half-way down the columnar body is a decorative lip that is not present on traditional figures. Researched by Sarah Teel
Wooden combs have long been used by Akan women both for ornamentation and for grooming, and akua’ma figures are often integrated into the motifs of Akan combs. This comb is unusual in having only six teeth, as Akan combs usually have at least seven teeth; seven is an important number in Akan religious ceremonies. Because combs continue to be functional objects in Akan culture, the encroaching influence of Western culture has not greatly changed the overall use or designs of Akan combs; however, Akan combs with akua’ba handle motifs are now being enlarged in order to be sold to tourists, meant to function as decorative wall art. This comb is quite large, but since Akan combs can differ greatly in size, it is unclear whether this comb was meant to be functional or made for the tourist trade. Researched by Sarah Teel
The influence of Western European culture on African art is undeniable, and this has resulted in an ever-increasing demand for new products that appeal to tourists. This sculpture of an akua’ba affixed to a bookend is an example of how the akua’ba figure has been altered or adapted for appeal. This akua’ba has the standard facial features except for the eyebrows, which are straight instead of curved, and in place of an accentuated navel are indented triangles that form a geometric motif on the columnar body. The most surprising feature, however, is the lack of breasts; this is very unusual because the Akan are a matrilineal culture and therefore place a high value on having female children. Researched by Sarah Teel
The demand for African art has fostered the creation of new art forms that appeal to tourists. This trinket box would be a good example of a new artform, as it has a traditional akua’ba face carved into the top of a removable lid for a wooden bowl. The face is also more perfectly round than a typical akua’ba figure, and the columnar body of the traditional akua’ba has been completely removed. Researched by Sarah Teel
This sculpture appears to have been inspired by traditional akua’ma figures, but it varies from them greatly in many ways. While the figure has a high forehead and akua’ba-like facial features, the face is shaped more like an egg, the eyebrows are missing, the forehead projects forward, and there is a diamond shape on the forehead. While traditional akua’ma have columnar bodies and truncated arms, this figure has legs and has more naturalistic arms. The figure also has hands–one hand placed on its stomach and one hand placed on its back, and it carries a baby on its back. Also unlike traditional akua’ma, the figure is clothed, wearing a carved, multi-colored dress that resembles kente cloth, a textile created by Akan cultures. All together, this figure is identifiably Akan, but it differs from traditional works and was likely created in response to increasing demand from tourists for African art. Researched by Sarah Teel
This akua’ba figure is strongly traditional, with the typical facial features, cheek scarification, and columnar body with cone-shaped arms and breasts. However, this figure has been securely fastened to the top of a wooden box stand, and it would therefore not be possible for this akua’ba to serve its intended, traditional function as a fertility figure; as such, it can only be used for display. While display objects do exist in African art, the akua’ba is not traditionally displayed, but a personal, functional object intended to help a woman to conceive. Thus, while this is in the form of a traditional akua’ba, the function has changed to being simply an art object. Researched by Nicole Manhart
While this akua’ba figure has the facial and body features of traditional akua’ma, it also incorporates extra decoration. Some traditional akua’ma do have extra carving, but these carvings appear on the back side of the figure, and they can indicate hairstyles, scarification, or even symbols that prevent evil or bad luck. This akua’ba, and other akua’ma in this exhibit, has carvings on the front side of the head and the body. These carvings are unusual, and likely indicate that they are pure decoration, added to make the akua’ba more appealing to tourists. Researched by Nicole Manhart
Although this figure has many traditional akua’ba features, it is actually a type of sculpture that was solely produced to appeal to the tourist trade. Artisans in Senegal, for example, often adopt sculptural forms from other cultures, especially those that are already popular in the tourist trade; they then create their own versions of the sculptures and inlay them with beads and/or metal, as seen on this figure, to make them more decorative and attractive. This figure is therefore not an akua’ba nor a traditional African sculpture, but a new type of art combining influences from the Akan and the Senegalese. Researched by Nicole Manhart
This figure is an unusual piece. It has akua’ba-like facial features and a columnar body, but it also has a three-dimensional head, it has arms and legs, it is sitting on a stool, it is smoking a simple pipe, and it is androgynous. Seated figures of this type are made as display objects to honor Akan kings and queen mothers, but there is nothing on this figure to suggest royal status. Pipes started out as high-status objects, but as smoking became more common, high-status pipes became very elaborate; since this figure holds only a simple pipe, it does not necessarily indicate status. The stool does suggest that the figure has some status, however, as traditionally only high-status persons have and use stools. Therefore, this figure may have been made to honor a person of some status, if not royal status. Researched by Nicole Manhart
With their similar faces and cone-shaped arms, this pair of small male and female figures resembles akua’ma, but the figures have rounded bodies and legs. Figures of this type are commonly available in tourist markets, so they could simply be small souvenir figures made for the tourist trade. However, another possibility is that they are not meant to represent fertility figures, but figures for Mboatia, which are dwarf spirits. In Akan communities, when a child went missing, it was believed that he or she was taken by the Mboatia. The only way to find the child was to carve a figure in the image of a child, male or female, and place the carved figure at the edge of the nearest virgin forest. The figure was then left there with offerings in order to attract the Mboatia, who would soon arrive and eat the food; in their greed, the Mboatia would prefer to share the offerings with a wooden child versus a live one, so the human child was released in exchange for the wooden doll. Researched by Nicole Manhart