Adinkra is a system of symbols and communication based on the spirituality and culture of the Akan people of Ghana. The Akan are a large West African ethnic group living in southern Ghana and the Cte d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast). Adinkra symbols first appeared in the early 1800s.
African is home to some 1,500 different languages. Twi (pronounced ch-wee) is the language of the Akan people and the basis for the names of the symbols.
The word “Adinkra” means “a message one gives to another when departing.” However, the popular symbols are used for the living as well. If you visit Ghana, you’ll see Adinkra everywhere-buildings, doorways objects and clothing.
The Akan people are master cloth makers and the symbols were stamped into the fabric. Adinkra cloth was originally worn only by royalty during funeral rituals or other important special occasions. The symbols were featured on funeral objects, including coffins and art, and were also used by the living to send a message to the dead.
Akan funerals were elaborate celebrations that mourned the loss of life while celebrating a new ancestor. The funeral was a rite of passage for the dead. Adinkra cloth would be specially created by an artist chosen by the family with symbols that reflected the life of the dead person.
There were a series of cloths worn throughout the funeral and mourning process, which could last up to a year. However, only the ones stamped with the symbols are Adinkra. The designs are stamped onto the cloth. The symbols are carefully chosen to reflect qualities of the deceased person. There could be as many as 15 symbols stamped onto a single cloth.
An important element in the Adinkra process is making the dye used to stamp the symbols onto the cloth. The dye is made by chopping the bark from the badee tree and soaking it to make it soft. The reddish brown material is then pounded with a large mortar and pestle until it becomes even softer.
Next, it’s boiled and the water takes on the color. Stones and lumps of iron are added, which change the color to nearly black. These also change the chemistry of the dye, helping it to penetrate cloth and stay.
The liquid is then boiled down-five gallons of liquid may be reduced to one gallon of tar-like liquid. Finally, the Adinkra dye is ready to use.
The stamp tool is made from the calabash or gourd. The musical instrument the shakere is also made from the calabash. The handle of the stamp tool is made from bamboo.
Adinkra items are produced in two primary craft villages in Ghana. The traditional or “old center” is the village of Asokwa where Adinkra cloths were produced for the royal court. Three miles away is Kumase. Both villages produce cloth, dye and stamps and employ dye makers, cloth makers and stamp carvers. Adinkra has become so popular that there are now factories that mass-produce these items.
Adinkra is not just for funerals or royalty anymore. People now wear it everyday. However, most people who are attracted to the prettiness of the symbols don’t know their meaning. It is important to remember that these symbols are part of the culture and wisdom of the Akan people, a link between living and the dead, the past and the present, today and tomorrow.
See photos for a look at a few of the most popular symbols
THIS WEEK IN BLACK HISTORY
- Harry Belafonte, A. Phillip Randolph and Jackie Robinson led 10,000 students on the Youth March for Integrated Schools in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 15, 1958.
- Inventor P.B. Downing patents his street letterbox on Oct. 27, 1891.
- Abolitionist and temperance leader Levi Coffin, who founded the Underground Railroad to help fugitive slaves escape captivity, was born on Oct. 28, 1798.
- The Supreme Court formally ruled to end segregation in all schools on Oct. 29, 1969.
- Look It Up: The symbols shown in today’s lesson are just a few of about 80 Adinkra symbols. Use the Internet or other reference sources to learn more about Adinkra. A good book to check out is “The Adinkra Dictionary: A Visual Primer on the Language of Adinkra” by W. Bruce Willis.
- Talk About It: How important are symbols in our everyday lives? What are some common symbols that we use daily?
- Write It Down: Choose your favorite Adinkra symbols. Create your own artwork using them.