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HOME : African & Tribal Art : Masterpieces of African Art : Asante Ivory Akua'ba Doll
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Asante Ivory Akua'ba Doll - PF.3275 (LSO)
Origin: Southern Ghana
Circa: 20th th Century AD
Dimensions: 8" (20.3cm) high x 2.25" (5.7cm) wide
Collection: African
Medium: Ivory

Location: UAE
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This remarkable piece is a rare ivory rendering 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. Akuaba dolls are not especially uncommon. However, the current Akuaba is remarkable in terms of its material of manufacture, and also the fact that it has been unusually – even uniquely – styled. The body is fairly typical, comprising a single rounded stem narrowing towards the shoulders; the body is engraved along the midline with linear scarifications. She has extremely pronounced and detailed breasts and nugatory, pointed arms sloping into a ringed neck. The head is very unusual. Most akuabas have either round heads with T-shaped brows/noses, or have elongated rectangular heads such as is seen in Fante variants (the Bono people, who live to the North of the Asante, carve smiling Akuabas with ornate hair and rather vacuous expressions). The head is very high, unadorned and domed, swelling towards the apex. It has high, completely arched brows that spring from the nose then rejoin the jawline, encircling diamond-shaped eyes with pierced centres. The mouth is small and pursed, and is partially obscured by the band of decoration that attach to the roots of the brows where they join the jawline. It may perhaps be intended to represent a beard, making it a highly unusual example of a hermaphrodite akuaba.

The value of ivory exceeded that of gold in many West African nations. Even where this was not the case, however, ivory was always a luxurious and expensive material that was reserved for elite objects and groups. The role of the akuaba doll is unvarying in the Asante and their neighbours, so there is no reason to assume that this had any function beyond that already described. It is therefore probable that this piece was carved on behalf of a wealthy family’s child, perhaps a member of a royal court. The ivory has acquired a honey-coloured, polished patina implying long-term usage, perhaps over several generations of the same family. Out of its context, it is a beautifully conceived and finished piece of African art, a credit to any collection. - (PF.3275 (LSO))


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