Art and Death in Southern Côte d’Ivoire

by Robert Soppelsa
US State Department / Art in Embassies (formerly Washburn University)

Memorial figures in use, south central Ghana, 1996. Photo by Karen Terpstra. Submitted by Robert Soppelsa.


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.