In the 17th century, on the coast of what is now modern-day Ghana, the Fante people developed a new tradition.
They organised themselves into military groups, the Asafo; they gave their assemblies numbers; and they used their skill as designers and image-makers to commence a visual practice today considered as one of the most vivid and celebratory of 20th century Africa.
These are Asafo flags: “asa” meaning war, “fo” meaning people. They are symbols and allegories, conjured from folk tales and proverbs. They speak of resistance, yet seem a far cry from their colonial era. Ghana claimed its independence from British rule in 1957 and these memory cloths straddle those years. They speak of a time and a place.
Colour-coded in accordance with the companies’ numeration, Asafo flags contain a jazz all their own. They invent and appropriate in equal measure. They encapsulate ancient beliefs and black consciousness. They are the identifiers both for funerals and festivities. Their ingredients include oral history, mythology, heraldry and new technology.
Each allegory aims to express its message with pride, personality and pizzazz. A draughtboard becomes a landscape for battle. Fishermen harvest a catch, just as the company will scoop up its enemies. Crocodiles cooperate and share a single body to eat. In the upper corner, the Union Jack looks down: a mark of allegiance, perhaps also a premonition of change. For Asafo flags clearly do not fear the Empire’s mighty signifier.
Asafo flags have long inspired artists, curators and designers. Notable advocates include Smithsonian director Gus Casely-Hayford and contemporary artist Kerry James Marshall. Asafo flags are included in the collections of the National Museum of African Art (Washington), the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York) and Quai Branly (Paris).
ASAFO at The Gallery of Everything features vintage flags from a number of key collections, including that of author and enthusiast Peter Adler. Dates range from the turn of the century until the 1960s