This is a well-executed 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 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. The name Akua’ba relates to the myth of a woman (named Akua) and the trials involved in her attempts to have a child (ba); her solution was to treat a wooden doll as a child, and eventually she herself became pregnant.
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 particular piece.
This is a classical akua’ba in general proportions, with an outsized head and a reductivist body. However, the detailing is unusual. Firstly, the body is comparatively substantial in relation to the head. Further, the integrated, round pedestal base and breasts are superbly rendered. The umbilicus – with obvious implications for childbirth and maternity – is also marked in relief. The arms project horizontally at the shoulders, with well-finished ends, and the neck-rings are clearly and crisply carved. The face is expressive rendered, with a smooth and sweeping M-shaped brow, an elongated nose almost reaching the inferior border of the face, and a nugatory mouth that resembles the general format of the coffee-bean eyes. The piece is well-worn, but undamaged, and has evidently been used in the manner for which it was intended. This is a striking and attractive piece of Asante art.