Kresge Art Museum
African Art: Western Eyes

Akuaba, female figure

Asante peoples, Ghana
Asante peoples, Ghana
20th century
Wood, beads
MSU purchase, 68.25
Akuaba sculptures are perhaps the most recognizable African art objects since they have been marketed as symbols representing Africanness. Although today akuaba can be found in the most diverse settings--from museums, gift shops, to advertising campaigns--they were originally created as sculptural figures to be used by women in the Akan area of Ghana. Associated with the desire to have healthy children, women struggling with infertility may commission an akuaba from a local artist on the advice of a priest. Each individual akuaba is incorporated into certain rituals and daily activities prescribed by the priest. Sometimes the woman will return to the priest several times to discuss her case and while there she may leave her akuaba on his shrine, increasing its efficacy. After a child is born, the akuaba associated with his or her birth can take on several different roles. The priest who advised the new mother may place it on his shrine to record his success; or it may become a family heirloom, be sold to art traders, or be given to the child as a toy.

The long neck, high oval forehead and the delicate facial features of an akuaba are said to be an abstraction of the Asante ideal of female beauty. Almost all akuaba figures are female. Scholars credit this to the fact that Asante society is matrilineal and therefore a female child is considered to be particularly important. Today the use of akuaba sculpture is linked to a legend about a woman, Akua, who was the first to commission a wooden figure to help conceive a child. She was mocked by her neighbors, who began calling the wooden image, Akua'ba, or Akua's child. However, after she gave birth to a beautiful daughter other women adopted this practice.