This superb sculpture is made by an unusually skilled and observant master carver of the Asante tribe. Depicting a native woman with a European baby, it reflects a host of social mores, the significance of which become more apparent once the history of the Asante has been addressed.
The Asante are one of six tribes (the others are the Fante, Aowin, Anyi, Akye and Abron) that go to make up the Akan group of the former Gold Coast – now Ghana. Their society, which was founded in the 14th century, has had a very turbulent history and was involved in the 18th century federation that took a golden stool as their emblem and rose up against the European invaders.
Their society is highly ritualised, with numerous gods under the main deity known as Onyame (“the Supreme One”), and a host of spirits. Descent is matrilineal, which is perhaps why so many of their sculptural works depict women. Due to the turbulent relationship they had with the colonial superpowers, the Asanti used all the methods at their disposal to subtly lampoon the western invaders, notably including the use of sculpture. This tradition of carving secular pieces with no greater aim than to represent their surroundings is not unique to the Asanti – the great Yoruban artist Thomas Ona did likewise for much of the 20th century – but they are perhaps among the most accomplished.
Here we have a native woman with a baby who is evidently not her own. It could be construed simply as an image of a nanny and her ward, with little further significance. However, upon second examination, it is in fact a sophisticated social parody of the whole social system in which the Asante lived. The woman is composed, elegant and refined. She has a remarkably knowing expression, perfectly coiffed hair, jewellery, blue eyeliner, red nail polish, and an attractive dress. The sculptor has taken great pains with her detailing, so her limbs, face and torso are perfectly proportioned, while he also took the time to carve tiny details like the dips at the end of her fingers to hold the nail polish, and thus provide a more realistic and elegant form. The contrast with the child she is rather casually holding over her left shoulder could not be more marked. He is depicted as enormous, fat, ugly and slug-like, with crude detailing and most of his features painted rather than carved. He has a disdainful expression, and is totally naked, unlike his carer. The power imbalance that existed in colonial times was marked and invariably in favour of the white invaders. One can imagine that there were precious few opportunities to lampoon the colonists, but that when one of them was a child – comparatively helpless and at the “mercy” of native carers – there was an ideal opportunity to do so. It is also ironic that the figure is brightly coloured using emulsion paints that were brought to Africa by the colonists. This is a wonderfully-conceived, well-executed and slyly amusing piece of African art.