Art and Death in Southern Côte d’Ivoire
by Robert Soppelsa
US State Department / Art in Embassies (formerly Washburn University)
This photograph was taken in south central Ghana early in 1996; the figures were sculpted about fifty years ago. All the elements of Akan commemorative shrines are present here: terracotta figurines associated with cooking vessels, all placed under a small, crudely built shelter in the forest near a town. In fact, field interviews done at the time this photograph was made failed to determine the exact identity of the figures portrayed in terracotta: it is possible that they represent deceased royals, but this is not necessarily the case. The term “royal” has a broader connotation for the Akan than it does in European cultures. Anyone related to a king or queen, even distantly, has a right to claim “royal” status. Thus, anyone but a slave in most Akan royal towns probably qualifies for a commemorative terracotta portrait. Another point regarding these figures: at least one of them has been "washed" with a coating of kaolin: a fine, white clay. This kaolin wash is apparently part of the maintenance of this shrine, though it is not practiced or mentioned at other sites in the Akan area.