Memorial Akan Head
Akan, Ghana, circa 1500-1600
Height : 17 cm
Provenance : Emile Deletaille, Brussels (acquired before 1974) Private collection, Belgium
The Akan inhabit areas of present-day southern Ghana and the Ivory Coast. Since the late six- teenth century, Akan women potters have created ceramic heads to commemorate deceased roy- als and individuals of high status. During the funeral, family members placed the terracotta por- traits of the deceased in a sacred grove near the cemetery, sometimes with representations of other family members. These sculptures served as the focal point for funerary rites in which libations and food were offered to the ancestors. But they were also conceived as containers into which the spirit of the deceased might be invoked.
The facial expression exhibited by portraits like this one tends to be neutral and even distant. This might reflect the look that Akan royalty actively cultivated, one that suppressed individuality in favor of regal character. It has also been suggested that the quartz fragments in terracotta pieces such as this were intended to produce a kind of luminosity akin to that sought by royal persons who on ceremonial occasions covered their bodies in shea butter containing gold dust.
The most explicit sign of status associated with the portraits, however, is the shape of the head and facial features. Like this head, the portraits often possess round faces with high, broad foreheads and prominent arched brow bones that connect with the nose. This ideal not only shaped rep- resentation, but also living people. Akan mothers molded the still-soft bones of newborns’ heads and faces to achieve these desired traits.
The surface of the present head has been covered with a clay slip tinted black, a color linked to the ancestral world and spiritual power in Akan thought.