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Asafo Flag (Ghana)

This is a Asafo flag. It is dated before 1957 and we acquired it in 2009. Its medium is cotton and its technique is factory-woven plain weave, pieced, appliquéd and embroidered. It is a part of the Textiles department.

Among the Fante people of coastal Ghana, small local militias known as Asafo play an important role in community and political life. The word asafo is derived from the Twi language of the Akan people of Ghana: sa, meaning war and fo, meaning people. The Fante region is made up of 24 states; in any one state there may be from 2 to 14 Asafo companies, and rivalries among the Asafo companies are common. Many flags are specifically designed as challenges or insults to rival companies, and many are based on proverbs, with subtle references to local events or personalities.

The display of Asafo flags is also associated with the social activities of the company and the town as a whole. For every town, the major event of the year is the Akwambo (path-clearing) festival, during which paths are cleared to shrines of the gods. Bearing their flags, the Asafo companies parade through the streets to the town shrines to demonstrate their allegiances. The flags are also shown at other events, such as the enstoolment of chiefs, the annual Yam Festival, and state holidays. At these social events, the flags are displayed in a variety of ways: the on the flagpoles of the shrines of each company, carried by company members in processions and, most dynamically, there is a spectacular display of dancing by specially trained flagbearers, the frankakitsanyi.

This textile, a black flag with alternating squares of red, white, black, and yellow forming a border, was made before 1957. It presents a frightened looking man with a hand raised to his open mouth, facing an impressive group of armed women in two lines. The two women closest to the man carry a flag and a drum while the others carry rifles and a machete. The initials of the militia are embroidered along the bottom edge. The flag is fringed on three sides. The design evokes the saying “When even our women have been prepared for war, what are our men capable of?” While these are typically called appliqué flags, the pieces are not applied to the surface but rather set into the ground fabric so that the figures are seen from both front and back, with details added to each side in embroidery. Before Ghana’s independence from the United Kingdom in March 1957, many of the flags featured the Union Jack in the upper left corner, much like this example. Later flags can be dated because of the inclusion of the Ghanaian flag. This flag is very well-executed technically, with fine stitching and embroidery and a torn-cloth fringe around three sides. Because these flags are used regularly, many are in poor condition; this piece, however, is in remarkably good condition.
This Fante Asafo flag is part of a unique visual arts tradition. It is a vibrant form of graphic design as well as textile art. It also forms an interesting connection to the museum’s collection of political and propaganda textiles, which are primarily English and American but include examples from other European countries as well as a small number of African regions.

This object was featured in our Object of the Week series in a post titled Beware of Armed Women.

It is credited Museum purchase through gift of Mrs. William Goulding and from General Acquisitions Endowment Fund.

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Its dimensions are

H x W: 106.7 x 145.4 cm (42 x 57 1/4 in.)

Cite this object as

Asafo Flag (Ghana); cotton; H x W: 106.7 x 145.4 cm (42 x 57 1/4 in.); Museum purchase through gift of Mrs. William Goulding and from General Acquisitions Endowment Fund; 2009-2-1

This object was previously on display as a part of the exhibition Jon Gray of Ghetto Gastro Selects.

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<ref name=CH>{{cite web |url= |title=Asafo Flag (Ghana) |author=Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum |accessdate=21 March 2023 |publisher=Smithsonian Institution}}</ref>