Location: Coastal Ghana
Arts: The sculptural arts of the Fante parallel, to a great extent, those of their inland Akan rivals, the Asante. They carve "akua'ba" fertility figures that are used in the same manner as those produced by the Asante. They fashion realistic female and male shrine figures, often of great beauty. They also have a tradition of carving "colon" figures in western dress, as have many of the conquered peoples who inhabit coastal areas. The most distinctive and famous of Fante artforms are the colorful applique' "asafo" flags.
The Fante people of coastal Ghana have militia-type organizations which have existed for many years. These groups, called "asafo," were historically charged with a variety of duties, from peacekeeping to leading festivals and celebrations. The number of distinct companies in each town could vary, based on the size and ethnic make-up of the town. Although Asafo companies had more official powers prior to Ghana's freedom from the British in 1957, they continue to play an important cultural role in Fante society today. The Asafo flags of the Fante, produced for the installation of a new leader, are perhaps the most dynamic two-dimensional artform in all of Africa. Most feature mirrored images sewn onto both sides, so it requires skill and experience to produce a flag that can pass the scrutiny necessary for acceptance. These wonderful textiles were used, not just displayed. Many were paraded outside in all sorts of weather, hung from poles, and some were even slept on by novice flagmakers! Most therefore have holes, stains, and some bleeding of the darker colors. The flags are considered sacred to the companies, who might have up to 200 housed in the official shrine or "posuban." Many are kept for so long, and under less than perfect conditions, that they are mere threads, so occasionally the company will make a copy of the old, worn flag and release the other one for sale. The average flag measures about 5x3 FEET!! The Fante also use fertility "dolls" called "akua'ba," made famous by the Asante. The Fante examples often feature a tall, vertical plank-like "face," carved from a light-colored and unstained wood, and can thus be easily distinguished from the darkened, round-headed ones of their inland neighbors. Other artforms found among the Fante, like "colonial" statues and formal shrine figures, can be quite difficult to attribute as they often share common stylisitic elements with those of their neighbors.
The history of the Fante is tied of course to that of the Akan Kingdom, which rose to power during the 13thC as a result of the abundance of gold found in their homelands. Over the centuries, the most powerful faction of the Akan, the Asante, emerged as a result of their control over the trade routes for gold merchants. The Asante were brutal and demanding, and as a result, smaller groups of Akan began to splinter off, moving towards the coast and into parts of Cote d'Ivoire. The Fante were one of these groups who chose to separate themselves as much as possible from the Asante, settling along the western coast of Ghana. Though they became somewhat autonomous, helped ironically by the British during their occupation until 1957, the Fante are still even today at the mercy of the political power of the Asante, who control much of Ghana's government.