Objects
Gertrude Nkrumah

Anonymous
Early 20th century
Wood
Height: 27,5 cm
Fante Fertility Figure
Origin: Fante, Ghana; exhibited at Museum Fünf Kontinente, Munich
Museum Fünf Kontinente

Inversion of Hegemony with Ideas of Femininity

Munich 201911 0 det      

 This contribution is part of the gallery                                                                                 

  Perspectives from Ghana on Museum Objects in Germany

 

Scholarly works abound on factors and causes of gender inequality in the Ghanaian society and many of these writings address gender inequality solely in terms of women as the victims and thus reinforcing the gender stereotype of female passivity. Although this is true in most cases, such studies do not necessarily address the question of how women have responded to and addressed issues of gender expectations and gender-related roles in African societies. By using the ‘Akuaba’ doll (fertility figurine), this research seeks to explore how the concept of womanhood has been portrayed and represented through time in the Ghanaian society among the Akan ethnic group. It seeks to extend an argument for the interpretation of these images beyond the depiction of women as sexual objects to that of creating an inversion of female hegemony in the society. I argue that instead of considering gender stereotypes as an all-pervasive oppressive tool, we must begin to think of the finer nuances and conceptualize how women have shaped, redefined, and negotiated socio-cultural construction of gender.

Gertrude Nkrumah
Gertrude Nkrumah

 

The object is widely referred to as the fertility figure, also known as the Akuaba doll among the Akans of Ghana. My reasons for selecting this object are two-fold. Firstly, it speaks to my childhood experiences as a girl growing up in an Akan society and secondly, as someone who is very passionate about gender-related issues either from an intellectual and personal perspectives, I was motivated to choose for this project an object that I can easily relate to, both from a personal and intellectual perspectives.

 

The object in question is the depiction of a female body, an exhibition of the Akan concept of an ideal woman. The features include a flat forehead with an elongated “ring-like neck shape”1 which reflects Akan standard of beauty. The understanding is that a woman with this type of neck is well-fed, healthy, and strong, a paragon of beauty and affluence. The flat broad forehead also is an embodiment of wisdom, while the accentuated breasts and hips with beads worn arounds the waist is the Akan ideal of womanhood, a depiction of woman as the giver of life. The beads worn around the waist has both aesthetic and symbolical meanings. In terms of beauty, beads were worn as an ornament for beautification, just as portrayed by the wearing of the jewels around her ears. It was also believed that wearing of beads around the waist is sexually appealing, while beads were also worn to broaden the hips and shape the waist for reproductive purposes. It is important to note that in the Akan society, and indeed in most Ghanaian culture, an ideal woman is one that carries and bears children. Clearly, ideas of beauty, sexuality and reproduction were the very essence of womanhood or femininity in the Akan society.

 

According to a very popular Akan oral tradition, the Akuaba doll is deeply rooted in one’s woman’s quest to overcome her inability in meeting societal ideas and expectation of womanhood.2 Akua, a childless woman, consulted a ritual specialist for a child. She was instructed to go to a woodcarver and make a doll of her choice for a child. Some rituals were then performed on the doll and given back to her to take home and treat and care for as her child. Later she became pregnant and gave birth to a daughter, just as she desired. The Akuaba doll then became symbolic for female reproduction. Amenumey explains that the Akuaba dolls were “…supposed to induce fertility and pregnancy….”.3 Among the Akan, like most precolonial Ghanaian societies, the concept of womanhood was largely defined and shaped by a woman’s ability to give birth to as many children as possible. Childbearing was a blessing from the gods and was usually celebrated with pomp and merrymaking. For instance, the custom was to reward a man whose wife has given birth to ten children with a sheep. The Akan refer to this as “badudwan”4 literally, a sheep for the tenth child. This was usually provided by the wife’s family to the husband to show their appreciation for the replenishing and sustainability of their family.5 In the quest to attain such feat, women worked hard to give birth to at least this number of children as prove of her worth to her husband and the society. This undoubtedly made women who were childless in the society feel undervalued and highly marginalized. 

 

Such ideas and concepts of womanhood and inadvertent marginalisation of women still resonate in contemporary Ghanaian society and indeed in most contemporary societies. A woman’s value and worth continue to be tied with her sexual and reproductive abilities. Although women at present now have access to spaces and engage in works that go beyond the traditionally assigned roles of wife and motherhood (sexual and reproductive values), a woman is still expected to neatly fit in with socio-cultural construct of gender. This underscores the value place on women’s sexuality and reproduction to the detriment of other roles beyond these norms, thus leading to the marginalization of women. It is for these reasons that scholars such as Lerner and Allman have often called for the need to question entrenched patriarchal norms that undermine women’s oppression while it reinforces male- superiority.6

 

The understanding that women have continually been passive and largely detached from the making of their own history and are mere tools in the hands of a patriarchal society is neatly contested by the history behind the Akuaba doll. While it is true that it was Akua’s desperation to fit into societal expectation of ideals of motherhood that forced her to consult a diviner to help her conceive a child, the knowledge that Akua chose to actively engaged with the process of making the doll; how the doll is carved out, the shape, the physical features, and the aesthetic nature is significant. Additionally, the fact that she chose to carve out a girl child clearly indicates the active role she played in redefining and negotiating power with the matrilineal, yet patriarchal society, thus creating and inverting power in an all-pervasive patriarchal institution. It is also an indication that she did not consider the female as of little value in her society. 

 

Paradoxically then, the history and philosophical ideologies that underpin the concept of the Akuaba doll is a clear exhibition of the nuances and complexities of societal construction of gender roles and status. In a society with a deeply entrenched gender expectations and assigned gender roles, it is remarkable that Akua sought to circumvent, manipulate, and yet conversely acquiesce with existing status quo to her advantage, an inversion of hegemony amidst patriarchal privilege. Therein lies the ambiguities and contradictions of performing gender.

 

 

 

References

 

  • Addo-Fening, R (1973). Asante refugees in Akyem Abuakwa 1875-1912. Transactions of the Historical Society of Ghana. 14, 1. 39-64.
  • Akyeampong, E & Obeng, P. (1995). Spirituality, Gender, and Power in Asante History. The International Journal of African Historical Studies. 28, 3. 481-508.
  • Allman, Jean. (1996). “Rounding up Spinsters: Gender Chaos and Unmarried Women in Colonial Asante.” Journal of African History, 37, 2, 195-214.
  • Amenumey, D. E. K. (2008). Ghana: A concise history from pre-colonial times to the 20th Century. Accra: Woeli Publishing.
  • Appiah Anthony K. (1991) “Is the Post- in Postmodernism the Post- in Postcolonial? Critical Inquiry. Vol. 17, No. 2. 336-357.
  • Lerner, G. (1994). The creation of feminist consciousness: From the Middle Ages to 1870. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Lerner, G. (1986). The creation of patriarchy. New York: Oxford University Press.

 

Footnotes

 

1) It is quite common today to hear songs in the Ghanaian society eulogising a woman’s beauty by referring to her ring-shaped neck, together with other physical features. This is an indication that the Akan standard of beauty in the past as enshrined in the Akuaba doll continue to resonate with contemporary Ghanaian societies.

2) This is a popular story among the Akans and was often recounted to young girls especially by an older woman in the family or society. I grew up listening to these stories from my mother and grandmother, among others.

3) D. E K. Amenumey. (2008). Ghana: A concise history from pre-colonial times to the 20th Century. Accra: Woeli Publishing. P. 90.  From a spiritual and philosophical perspectives, the use of the Akuaba went beyond just fulfilling the desires of childless women. In most of these Akan societies, when a woman gives birth to twins but in an unlikely situation where one of them dies, she is expected to make a replica of an Akuaba doll in replacing the dead child. Some would also bury the dead child with the Akuaba doll as a way of warding off evil spirit from killing the living child.

4) “Badu” is an Akan name for the tenth born child. ‘Ba’ or ‘ɛba’ is the Twi word for child, while ‘ɛdu’ or ‘du ‘means the number ten in the Akan language. Therefore, the name Badu in Akan usually refers to a tenth born child.

5) It is significant to point out that Akan society, unlike most ethnic groups such as the Mole-Dagbani, Ewe, Ga-Adangbe and Guan, is mostly a matrilineal society. Lineage, inheritance, and chieftaincy succession have always been through the female line. Although precolonial Akan society was not completely immune from patriarchal ideals, women played important roles and and had significant status in society especially in areas of religion, politics and economy. For further details on this, see for example the articles Addo-Fening, R (1973). Asante refugees in Akyem Abuakwa 1875-1912. Transactions of the Historical Society of Ghana. 14, 1. 39-64 & Akyeampong, E & Obeng, P. (1995). Spirituality, Gender, and Power in Asante History. The International Journal of African Historical Studies. 28, 3. 481-508.

6) See for example, Allman, J. (1996). “Rounding up Spinsters: Gender Chaos and Unmarried Women in Colonial Asante.” Journal of African History, 37, 2, 195-214, Lerner, G. (1994). The creation of feminist consciousness: From the Middle Ages to 1870. Oxford: Oxford University Press., & Lerner, G. (1986). The creation of patriarchy. New York: Oxford University Press.

 

 

This article is part of a gallery: Perspectives from Ghana on Museum Objects in Germany

 

published January 2021