Asafo Flags of the Fante

The Fante (often spelt Fanti) people live along the coast of Ghana to the west of Accra in fishing villages such as Anomabu, Saltpond, Mankessim, and Elmina, and in the town of Cape Coast. Elmina was the site of the first major European settlement in West Africa with the construction of St.George’s Castle by the Portuguese in 1492. Over the centuries that followed the region was a centre for slave trading and the Fante became key intermediaries between the slavers and the peoples of the interior such as the Asante. Asafo “companies” developed as military organisations of young men in the Fante villages, adopting flags and other European-inspired regalia which they gradually modified for local use. As well as defending the village against local enemies and incursions by the Asante, the two or more companies in each community developed intense local rivalries, which were acted out during festivals and other ceremonial occasions. The active fighting role of the Asafo companies ended with the British colonial takeover late in the nineteenth century, but they remain key associations in the ritual life of Fante villages.

Asafo flag dancer. Photo by Doran Ross.

Each company has a central shrine, called a posuban, which is generally an elaborate concrete structure decorated brightly colored figures, and which serves as a store for regalia and a focus for sacrifices. Flags, called frankaa, are a key item of Asafo regalia. Each man who wishes to join the society commissions a new flag from the local flag maker, usually giving him instructions as to the design. The imagery on the flags asserts the wealth and prowess of the company and explicitly challenges rival groups. Often the design alludes to proverbs, reflecting the importance of proverbs throughout Akan culture. At annual festivals, funerals for company members and other occasions flags are hung around the shrine and paraded through the village. Although the exact origins of Asafo flags are unclear, there are reports of their use dating back at least to the early 18th C. Flags made before Ghanaian independence in 1957 have a version the British Union Jack flag in the corner, after that date some incorporate the Ghana flag instead. Flags are still being made and used as an important part of communal life in Fante villages today. Since the 1990s their direct and striking imagery has also made them highly collectable outside Ghana.

How do we tell genuine Asafo flags from copies made for sale internationally that proliferate online ? The article below was written back in 2009 for my blog:

So how do we tell a real authentic flag from a fake ? What do we mean by fake in this context ? In African art circles there is a widely accepted (albeit intellectually problematic) definition of authenticity. An authentic object is one which was made for local use and which received local use before being sold. An object that was made specifically to be sold on the art market or tourist market is not considered to be authentic and except in exceptional cases will never have any significant monetary value however nice it looks. Both the condition and the design of flags provide useful indications of age and authenticity. Flags that have received local use over any significant length of time show signs of that use such as small marks, holes, stains, bleaching from the sun, colour run, damage to and curling of the tassels on the border etc. Contrary to what some dealers in the Accra tourist market hope, leaving a new flag on the roof for a few days in the rainy season does not closely mimic the effect of local use, it just makes a new flag look dusty and rained on. Old fabric has a different look and feel from new that is extremely hard to fake. So luckily if you look carefully it is very easy to distinguish new flags from old.
Turning to the design, the first important point to note is that contrary to what is often asserted the use of a version of the British Union flag in the corner (the canton) does NOT mean that the flag was made before Ghanaian independence in 1957. Clearly a Ghana flag indicates a date after 1957 when it was adopted, but the reverse is not true. There could be a number of reasons why locally used flags were still ordered with the Union Jack canton, most obviously to replace an important old flag that was damaged beyond use. Moreover the flags made in the last decade for sale in the Accra art market almost invariably have the British flag.
This is a well made authentic 1970s flag from the collection of the Textile Museum, Washington. It illustrates the boast ” We can carry water in a basket using a cactus as a head cushion” i.e. “we can do the impossible.”
Genuine flags were individually ordered, usually from a professional flag maker, by Asafo society officers, to mark their promotion to a higher rank, and the design was a carefully thought out project intended to communicate a specific saying or to mark a particular historical event. As a result most authentic flags have a design coherence, graphic sensibility, and visual impact that is immediately apparent. On the other hand when a dealer places a bulk order for ten pieces to be delivered as soon as possible, the result is usually slapdash workmanship, meaningless designs or poor copies, and a resulting lack of visual impact. I am not going to post one of these but a quick search on Google or Ebay will bring up numerous examples.
One final clue is to look at the price. Authentic old flags are now very hard to source and sell internationally for thousands of dollars. Flags that are for sale for a few hundred dollars are very unlikely to be old…
Buying new flags, providing you know that they are new, and you are paying the right new price for them, gives much needed income to very poor people in Ghanaian villages. There is nothing wrong with new flags as such, they become “fakes” when someone sells them as old. Most are poorly made but if you look carefully and choose examples that are well designed and well made your purchase will also encourage the continuation of old traditions of artistry and skill. There are still some flag makers doing good work and more sales would encourage them to continue. 
Further Reading: 
Adler,P. & Barnard,N. (1992) Asafo ! African Flags of the Fante – illustrates a great collection.
Carmignani, F. Asafo (2010)
Güse, E-G. (1995) Asafo, Fahnen aus Ghana – German exhibition catalogue, nicely presented collection with a few spectacular pieces.
Heymer,K. (1993) Tanzende Bilder – another German catalogue, shows many of the same flags, but different text and some interesting old photos.
Labi, K.A. “Fante Asafo Flags of Abandze and Kormantse” in African Arts XXXV (4) 2002
Ross,D. (1979) Fighting With Art – this is source of most subsequent books and articles.
Ross,D. (2010) “True Colours, Faux Flags and Tattered Sales” in African Arts 43(2) – discusses the trade in fake flags.
And especially:
Forni, Silva and Ross, Doran: Art, Honor, and Ridicule: Fante Asafo Fags from Southern Ghana (ROM/Fowler Museum, 2017)
Click here to view Asafo flags we have for sale
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