Barbara Eyeson, the creative director of Asafo Flags, has been collecting and researching the medium for ten years, currently working towards curating an exhibition in London showcasing the exquisite flags. Her family come from Fante’s tribes lining the southern coast of Ghana and Fante people live to the west of Accra, in fishing villages such as Anomabu, Saltpond, Mankessim, Elmina and in the town of Cape Coast. Traditionally, the flags, called Frankaa, are key items of Asafo regalia that adorn the central shrines of Fante villages. The cultural significance of Asafo flags still stands strong often displayed at different social events including festivals, ceremonies and festivals and “are still made and used today as an important part of communal life in Fante villages,” Barbara tells It’s Nice That.
During the colonisation of Ghana in the 17th century, European cloth arrived at Ghana’s shores and Asafo companies were established. The Asafo people adopted European military practices under colonisation which is why the Union Jack features in some Asafo flags until Ghana’s independence in 1957. “The earliest flags date back to the early 18th century and may have been painted or drawn on raffia cloth but today, most flags are made of appliquéd trade cloth” says Barbara.
The Fante organised military groups called ‘Asafo’ due to the lack of a standing army; “the name derives from ‘sa’ meaning war and ‘fo’ meaning people” explains Barbara. “Simple imagery that is always unique depicts a historical event” or asserts the wealth and power of the Asafo company that manufactured it, as well as explicitly challenging rival groups. “Often the design alludes to proverbs, reflecting their importance throughout Akan culture” and effectively communicated through block-coloured patchworks.
The flags often illustrate powerful visual metaphors, such as animals like the crocodile which represents strength in the Fante communities; “creatures are often considered more powerful than humans” says Barbara. The fish and crocodile flag titled Hen Afu narrates the proverb of how “fish grow fat for the benefit of the crocodile who rules the river”. The Peppertree flag documents an obedience fable, “if a child wants to pick a ripe pepper, let him do it and when it gets in his eyes he will stop himself”. The Cactus Tree flag is about how “only a brave chicken will approach a cactus tree” as the cactus and pepper tree were considered dangerous. In The Big Waterbird, “the big water bird swallows a fish from a different angle” suggesting that the owners of the flag can accomplish things others find difficult. The flags offer a fascinating insight into Fante culture through a timeless aesthetic and capture the soul of Fante proverbs through simple and elegant designs.