This is a delightful example of one of Africa’s most recognisable fertility idols, the Asante Akuaba doll. Like most tribes, the Asante hold fertility in extremely high regard; those societies that do not grow are doomed to fail. As a result, women are, from an early age, constantly aware of the importance of conception and successful delivery of live children. Any failure to do so would be construed as a disgrace and ill-fortune not only for her, but for her family and tribe. So to negate any ill-fortune, she may visit the tribal medicine man to commission a piece such as this.
Endowed with magical properties, these dolls are treated as if they were real babies – carried around, dressed, washed, fed and even put to bed. It is likely that they do have a positive effect on the prevalence of successful conception, if only from a psychosomatic point of view. Once born, the child may be encouraged to play with the doll, thus promoting maternal sentiment; while a male child may be wished for, these dolls are almost always female, partly because of the matrilineal nature of Asante society. 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 that include, for our purposes, the earth goddess of fertility – Asase Yaa.
Asante iconography and artistic design is among the most abstract and expressionist in Africa, and was immensely influential in the development of European art styles in the early days of the 20th century. Prestige pieces are uncommon, and are either made from rare materials such as ivory, or are adorned with trade beads or other precious objects. Akuaba dolls are not especially uncommon. However, well-carved examples of what is largely a symbolic amulet are infrequently found. Although they follow standardised stylistic trends, there is some variation. The most extreme versions come from outside the Asante range; Fante variants have elongated rectangular heads, while the Bono people carve smiling Akuabas with ornate hair and rather vacuous expressions. Even within the Asante tribal areas there are stylistic variants – that denote different geographical origins or sculptors – in the way details are carved, and it is probable that further research could identify the exact origin of this unusually-executed piece.
The format is conventional, with a tall, slim body and a large round head. The detailing, however, is unconventional. The hands are denoted by small peg-like eminences at the ends of the nugatory arms, while the base is carefully carved as a pedestal. The banded neck is very slim and elongated, and the piece is wrapped in a long string of yellow glass trade beads. The face is highly unusual, with elevated features standing proud of the surface. The eyes and mouth are arranged as a series of squares, counterbalanced by a square vertically-incised scarification above the nose. The brows and the nose are very gracefully executed as a T shape, with the brows swooping infero-laterally from the midline. This softens the blow of the figure’s geometric reductivism and echoes the smooth, fine lines of the doll’s head. This is a striking and attractive piece of Asante art.