Dueling Banners

Proverbs in the asafo flags of Ghana

Asafo Flag, No. 2 Company; created by Akwa Osei, Ghana, Fante people; c. 1900, Cotton and rayon, embroidery and appliqué
Asafo Flag, No. 2 Company; created by Akwa Osei, Ghana, Fante people; c. 1900, Cotton and rayon, embroidery and appliqué Wikimedia Commons

Flags have always been important in military affairs, and this is certainly true in Ghana, where flags carry messages of pride and defiance. The Fante people of the south-central portion of what is now Ghana were among the first West Africans to be exposed to European military forces and merchant traders. In 1471 Portuguese explorers arrived on the Gold Coast, and they were soon followed by a host of traders, including the Dutch, the English and the French. For a time, the Fante formed alliances with these Europeans to combat their traditional enemy, the Ashanti. Seeing the naval banners and regimental colors displayed by the Europeans, the Fante created their own flags, to be carried by their warrior companies, or asafo. (Once in charge of state defense, these companies are now primarily social and civic in nature.) Artisans combined the form of European flags with their own West African tradition of using proverbs to convey information, creating the innovative and colorful art form seen here.

The cultures of coastal Ghana boast a repertoire of more than 3,000 proverbs, but only about 200 of these are depicted on flags. Each asafo company uses certain identifying colors and illustrations on its flags. Imagery may include historical themes, such as a past conflict with a rival company, or an emblem that identifies the company with a symbol of power, like a leopard or an airplane. These distinctive banners are an integral part of civil ceremonies and celebrations. As Mattiebelle Gittinger, a curator with the Textile Museum in Washington, D.C., notes, "Flags are displayed at ‘path clearing ceremonies,’ which are homecoming festivals when new captains are named. They are also used at funerals of members of the company, when a new chief is empowered, and on national and local holidays."

The textiles usually measure 3 feet by 5 feet, are made of cotton or silk, and feature appliquéd mirror images on each side. The emblem in the canton (the top inner quarter) helps to date the flags: variations of the British Union Jack appeared until Ghana’s independence in 1957, when the Ghanaian tricolor replaced the colonial symbol.

Many of the flags pictured here, as well as several others, are on display at the Textile Museum through August 12, 2001.

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