The people from the Ashanti tribe (1,5 million) belong to the Akan-speaking peoples populating the southern part of Ghana. In the beginning of the 17th century, they established a powerful empire owing to successful trade in gold, slaves and weaponry. Over the following 200 years their empire was the dominating political power in the region.
The Akua-ba figures are among the most popular and symbolism-laden images in African art. They were used in various contexts wherein the ritual was much more complex than just the making of the figures themselves. Most of all, these were sculptures specially sanctified by the priests of the tribe and carried by women who were hoping to conceive a child. The flat profile of the figures reflects their practical purpose – the women carried them on their backs as they might real living creatures wrapped in their clothing.
The disc-like shape of the head and the high oval brow of the figure on display reflect the classical ideal of physical beauty of the Akan culture. The eyes are outlined by delicately shaped, arch-like brows that gradually join the nose line. The rings around the elongated neck are the conventional way to indicate bodily fat considered to be a sign of good health and wellbeing. The delicately shaped lips are small and placed low on the face.
Most Akua-ba figures have horizontally attached, short cone-shaped “abstract” arms and cylindrical torso with just a hint of breasts and navel. The body stands on a small round base. Thus the T-shape of the overall silhouette of the image is accentuated – something quite characteristic of the Ashanti sculptures.
The name Aqua-ba comes from an ancient legend about a woman named Aqua (meaning “born on Wednesday”), who was barren and who, just like anyone else, wanted desperately to have a child of her own. She went to the local priest who advised her to have a small wooden figure of a child made for her and tend to that figure carrying it everywhere with her as if it were a real baby. The woman followed the advice closely, despite the fact that she became laughing stock to the people of her village who now were calling her Akua-ba (“ba” means a “child”). After all, she conceived and gave birth to a beautiful girl. Thus it all grew into an established ritual and came to be practiced to overcome infertility. The legend and tradition are still alive today.
All original Akua-ba sculptures are female images not just because Akua’s firstborn was a girl, but because the Ashanti social structure is matriarchal. People of the tribe believe that children inherit their souls from their fathers and their belonging to their particular clan – from their mothers. Girls are preferred because they would continue the family line and help in all household chores including looking after the younger children in the family.
Following a successful birth, the Akua-ba figures are usually brought back to the main shrine as an offering to the spirits of the ancestors, a gesture of gratitude for their responding to the prayers for a child. Sometimes the families may keep the figures as a token of the happy event of childbirth. The figures become family relics and are valued for the spiritual practices they represent and also for their exceptional beauty.