The Asante Akuaba doll is perhaps one of the most striking fertility idols on the African continent. Like most tribes, the Asante hold fertility in extremely high regard; those societies that do not grow are doomed to fail. As a result, women are, from an early age, constantly aware of the importance of conception and successful delivery of live children. Any failure to do so would be construed as a disgrace and ill-fortune not only for her, but for her family and tribe. So to negate any ill-fortune, she may visit the tribal medicine man to commission a piece such as this.
Endowed with magical properties, these dolls are treated as if they were real babies – carried around, dressed, washed, fed and even put to bed. It is likely that they do have a positive effect on the prevalence of successful conception, if only from a psychosomatic point of view. Once born, the child may be encouraged to play with the doll, thus promoting maternal sentiment; while a male child may be wished for, these dolls are almost always female, partly because of the matrilineal nature of Asante society. The Asante are one of six tribes (the others are the Fante, Aowin, Anyi, Akye and Abron) that go to make up the Akan group of the former Gold Coast – now Ghana. Their society, which was founded in the 14th century, has had a very turbulent history and was involved in the 18th century federation that took a golden stool as their emblem and rose up against the European invaders. Their society is highly ritualised, with numerous gods under the main deity known as Onyame (“the Supreme One”), and a host of spirits that include, for our purposes, the earth goddess of fertility – Asase Yaa.
Asante iconography and artistic design is among the most abstract and expressionist in Africa, and was immensely influential in the development of European art styles in the early days of the 20th century. Pieces such as this are not especially uncommon. However, the current Akuaba is an unusually fine example in terms of both conception and execution. The piece is conventional in terms of general form, with large, round head, a long neck, a columnar body, and short legs. Unusually, however, the body is superbly detailed and quasi-naturalistic. She has a protruding stomach and umbilicus and large, pendulous breasts. She is clearly well-nourished, with excellent portrayal of flesh forms to the legs and posterior. Her knees are bent, with clear distinction between the thigh and the shins. Her arms are complex and jointed, and her hands rest protectively upon her abdomen. She has good surface detail, including linear scarifications to the stomach, thighs and back, and an incised abstract decoration on the back of the head. The quality of the carving is excellent, with complex forms rendered into sinuous progressions that add great fluidity to the piece.
The face is extremely well-rendered, with a serene expression enhanced by the addition of high arched eyebrows and nose in a joined “T” format. The eyes and mouth are identical in terms of form, in the so-called “coffee-bean” design. The perimeter of the face was originally decorated with hair, judging from the holes around the perimeter, and there are three groups of three incised scars above the nose and at either side of the mouth. The neck is comprised of thirteen rings that are meant to represent necklaces, and thus wealth. It is probable that this piece was carved for and at the behest of a high-status member of the tribe. The fact that it has been well-used, and developed a good patina, would seem to suggest that her prayers were answered. This is a beautiful and eloquent piece of Asante art.