Art and Death in Southern Côte d’Ivoire

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

Assongu and shrine, Côte d’Ivoire. Photo by Robert Soppelsa.

 

The shrine in this photograph and the small terracotta figurine next to it belong to a tradition that is practiced widely in southeast Côte d'Ivoire and southern Ghana, and which appears to have spread in recent years: it is called Assongu. Assongu refers to a spirit said to reside on an island in the Aby Lagoon. The spirit "chooses" people as devotees, causing them to bleed. Once a diviner has specified that the spirit is involved in an individual's life, s/he builds a shrine to the spirit and commissions a potter/sculptor to make a figure or figures representing the spirit. These are kept in the shrine and washed regularly with kaolin and water. As long as the shrine and sculptures are maintained, the devotee remains healthy. The spirit protects against malevolent forces, particularly thieves and witches. Terracotta portraits of royals have the same apotropaic powers. While these shrines are not commemorative, they are similar to commemorative royal shrines in that they are small, simple structures which house terracotta sculptures, located near roads close to human settlements, renowned for their protective powers.