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Photo credit: Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University

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Culture: Asante (Ghana)
Title: Akua'ba
Date: late 19th-early 20th century
Medium: Wood
Dimensions: 14 x 5 1/4 in. (35.6 x 13.3 cm)
Credit Line: Gift of William W. Brill
Object Number: 87.059.009
The akua’ba (akua’ma if plural) is a carved doll that functions both to help women conceive children and to encourage beauty in the unborn.

This akua’ba was made by an Asante wood carver in Ghana, West Africa.

Akua’ma are made by male wood carvers working with a single piece of osese wood (also called African mahogany). After carving the form and incising the decorations, the figure would be passed on to a woman for the finishing work. This includes sanding the surface and applying a black polish comprised of white clay, red Kola nuts, mansion polish and shoe polish. To activate the figure, a priest must consecrate it.

Although many people around the world readily recognize the akua’ba form and associate it with Africa and Ghana, the object type is relatively young; the earliest known pieces were made in 1860s or ’70s.
The name akua’ba derives from an Asante folktale. A woman named Akua had difficulty conceiving a child, so she appealed to the god, Bosom, for help. A priest told her to commission a carved doll, which he then blessed. Akua was told to carry the doll on her back (in a manner traditionally used by African women), and treat it as a real child until she got pregnant. This she did, but was teased mercilessly by the other women for it. Nevertheless, the doll apparently worked because Akua successfully delivered many children. Hence, the doll is called akua’ba (Akua=woman’s name) (ba=child). The akua’ba is meant to help women conceive children and to encourage beauty in the unborn. The Asante traditionally believe that a pregnant woman should not look upon a monkey or anything repulsive for fear that the child could take on its ugliness.

After successfully fulfilling the function of providing a child, an akua’ba could be used in several ways. It could be placed at a shrine to thank and venerate the ancestors and spirits, passed down in the family as a valued heirloom, or given to a child as a plaything.

This akua’ba doll is in classic form: a cylindrical body with a disk-shaped head, simple projections for arms, tiny rings around an elongated neck, small raised breasts, and a protruding navel.

The face is always on the lower half of the head and the eyebrows form two arks flowing at the nose. Notice the small, narrow nose and mouth. These features signify a quiet, civil comportment, valued among the Asante. The downward glance and narrowed eyes convey the Asante ideal for women to be passive and docile.

A smooth, broad forehead is highly regarded by most Asante, so much so that in the past attempts were made to mold infants’ foreheads into that shape by gently pressing on the head with warm water for several days. Look at the forehead of this akua’ba; it features gathered plaits of hair at the top of the head. This is similar to a popular Asante and Fante hairstyle, and serves to create an altar-like composition suggesting the spiritual agency of the figure.

Notice the many rings around the neck. These are not fat rolls, but are signs of good health and sexual attractiveness among the Asante.

The small breasts identify the figure as female. This is typical of akua’ma because the matrilineal Asante society values female offspring. Another significant feature confirming the prepubescent and female identity of the figure is the stylized V-shape form at the bottom of the akua’ba. This is likely an abstracted representation of the clitoris, which only a young girl would have—traditionally, Asante women are circumcised when they reach puberty.

The black surface color is tied to the Asante three-color classification system. The three colors are: tuntum (black and dark shades), fufu (white and light shades), and kokoo (red and yellowish colors). Whereas white is linked to innocence and happiness, and red associated with anger, magic, and warfare, black is loosely connected to night and the ancestors. Thus, the black akua’ba links the unborn child of the spirit world to life on earth.

NOTE: This electronic record is compiled from historic documentation which may not reflect the Johnson Museum's complete or current knowledge of the object. Review and refinement of such records is ongoing.