Art and Death in Southern Côte d’Ivoire

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

GhanaAsante peoples

Vessel

Early-mid 20th century

Ceramic

H x W x D: 25.4 x 21 x 21 cm (10 x 8 1/4 x 8 1/4 in.)

Gift of Emil Arnold

69-35-36

Photograph by Franko Khoury

National Museum of African Art

Smithsonian Institution

This is called an abusua kuruwa ("family pot") and is produced by the Asante of Ghana. Rather than a portrait of an individual, this type of vessel represents a whole family's spirit essence. Similar objects were discussed by British colonial officers early in the twentieth century, particularly Robert Rattray in his 1927 book, Religion and Art in Ashanti. Like the terracotta portraits of the Akan, these are commemorative and symbolically associated with benevolent, ancestral family spirits, and they are used at the funerals of important persons. The images in relief on the shoulder of the pot refer most often to proverbs, such as the ladder: "The ladder of death is not climbed by just one man" [i.e., death is inescapable]. Other Akan groups place pottery containers near figurative sculptures in areas reserved for ancestors, but the pottery is simple domestic ware, unlike the elaborately decorated abusua kuruwa.