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Art, Honor, and Ridicule: Asafo Flags from Southern Ghana

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Winner, 2017 R. L. Shep Ethnic Textiles Book Award, Textile Society of America

Given annually to a publication judged to be the best book in the field of ethnic textile studies.

This book stands out in particular for the depth of scholarship based on field research conducted in Ghana over a period of decades. Doran Ross (1947–2020) was a leading figure in the study of African arts at UCLA for many years, and director of the Fowler Museum, 1996–2001. Sylvia Forni is Senior Curator of Global Africa at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) and Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Toronto. The catalog accompanies the 2016 ROM exhibition and 2022 Fowler Museum exhibition of the same name.

The book is illustrated with photographs from the authors’ field research and magnificently reproduced cloths from the collections of both museums, which maintain the two most extensive holdings of Asafo textiles in North America. ROM and the Fowler are to be congratulated for this kind of collaborative effort, which offers perspectives that are often missing when museums publish books based solely on their own collections.

Asafo are commoners’ military organizations among the Fante peoples, functioning as local police and providing community services. Larger towns support several competing “companies” and each company maintains a collection of twenty to sixty different colorful appliquéd flags. The flags are carried and “danced” in performance at festivals, vouching for the pride and power of the respective asafo. They are the most vibrant visual markers of a system that has served as a commoners’ check on the power of local rulers. The military nature of the asafo is also closely linked to the history of the slave trade and colonial rule on the Ghanaian coast.

The bold, diverse and often whimsical motifs that adorn the flags are connected to orally-transmitted proverbial interpretations. To give just one example among many gathered from the authors’ interviews with asafo artists, a motif of a hedgehog recalls the aphorism: “The hedgehog grows fat to the benefit of the rotten log.” This is understood to mean that the asafo company and its larger community stand in a symbiotic relationship.

One groundbreaking dividend of the authors’ extensive field research is that they are able to associate many flags now in museum collections with specific artists and workshops active historically in various Fante communities. They also have interview data from those same artists and their descendants. Additional chapters explore woman and gender in asafo and the recent globalization of asafo imagery.

Publisher: ‎ ROM (Royal Ontario Museum) 2017
Language: ‎ English
Hardcover: ‎ 303 pages
ISBN-10: ‎ 0888545169
ISBN-13: ‎ 978-0888545169
Item Weight: ‎ 4.15 pounds
Dimensions‏: ‎ 9.5 x 1 x 12 inches

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