Art, Honour, and Ridicule: Asafo Flags from Southern Ghana


On September 20th I had the pleasure of attending one of the Royal Ontario Museum’s newest exhibits, Art, Honour, and Ridicule: Asafo Flags from Southern Ghana, followed by a lecture from Professor Ato Quayson discussing Ghana’s history as well as the cultural significance of these flags. This exhibit is part of a three-year project at the ROM that, strives to bring an African voice and history to the forefront of conversation in Toronto through different exhibitions. It exceeded my expectations.

I entered the dimly-lit exhibition room, welcomed by the celebratory music of drums. The only brightness bounced from small spotlights with the sole purpose of lighting the artefacts and flags. As I walked through the exhibit, I found myself completely moved and stimulated by my surroundings.

Intricate, hand-made flags hung proudly inside their glass casing, portraying images so story-like they hardly needed description. The use of vibrant colours and unique images made each flag more interesting to learn about than the next—the flags themselves providing a deeper insight into Ghana’s culture and history.

As the exhibit’s opening sign stated, although the diverse flags are used as the crests of military companies of the Fante states in Southern Ghana, these flags came to “convey powerful narratives of pride, record historical events, visualize proverbial wisdom, and send defiant messages to enemies.”

I also learned about the distinct, individual meanings behind each flag. The use of different, sometimes mythical, animals such as lions, eagles, elephants, griffons, and dragons represented the strength and power of the company characterized by that flag. All of which meant to instil fear and intimidation amongst the opposition while instilling pride within a community. Other imagery included: trees representing the challenges one must overcome, clocks representing the controlling of time, traps representing intellectual superiority, and even competitive games as a representation of the competition at hand between different companies. Most flags portrayed a British flag in the canton  (upper left corner) as a symbol of the British Union, as Ghana’s independence didn’t come until March of 1957.

These flags are brought to life through energetic public performances—often dances—meant to celebrate one’s own culture and instil pride in the Ghanaian people under that flag. These performances are extremely culturally significant as they denote a unity unseen in Southern Ghana at the time of their creation, up to 300 years ago.

As I discovered through Professor Ato Quayson’s lecture, the use of similar motifs on flags often fuelled conflict and anger amongst different companies. These flags acted as a demonstration of the foundations of these companies. Because their foundational narratives are typically quite similar, the symbols on flags often imitated others. This only further contributed to the division of Southern Ghana in the past.

Getting the opportunity to view and learn about the Asafo flags of Southern Ghana in 2016 provides a unique and insightful perspective. As Professor Quayson put it, “Their flags represent an important window into the contradiction of global Ghanaian expressive cultures as they negotiate the transition between tradition and modernity.”

Some other important artefacts included the clothes of Ghanaian people, as well as interpretations of Ghana’s diverse flags through modern art pieces. Just as the flags stood for the characteristics of different companies, the clothing worn became central motifs signifying admirable qualities of individuals and the community as a whole. During public performances, members of the community often wore a distinct uniform—these uniforms being anything from vibrant matching shirts and shorts to police-like costumes. The idea of a uniform being central to the celebratory nature of public performances reflected the search for unity within Southern Ghana and instilled a sense of camaraderie and harmony within a company. Modern art pieces frequently emphasized the colonial, destructive history of Ghana through moving images mimicking the pictures seen on Ghanaian flags and garments.

At the end of the night, the High Commissioner of Ghana to Canada, H.E. Dr. Sulley Gariba, gave a small speech regarding his immense gratitude towards the ROM for curating this Ghanaian collection, and he expressed his excitement toward Ghana’s upcoming 60th anniversary of independence in March of 2017. He then shared a heart-warming anecdote from the exhibition’s opening night last weekend, which his family attended.

He explained that his young son was completely ecstatic at the opportunity to learn about his own history—a history not largely taught in Canada. As the High Commissioner delivered his speech at the end of that night, the drum music was turned off so that the audience could hear him speak. However, with the lowering of the music his son began to cry. He did not want to feel like the connection he had made to his heritage and history would be broken, and the interruption of the celebratory music of his culture made him realize this fear. Regarding this moment, Dr. Sulley Gariba remarked, “We’re discovering ourselves as well.” It was through this story that I truly began to understand the significance of exhibits such as this one.

As history can be subjective and exclusive, it is important to learn about the diversity of cultures existing within history. This allows for connections to be made between the past and the present, creating strides towards a future of inclusivity and overall understanding. I applaud the ROM in recognizing this necessity and using their connection to history to bring this understanding to a modern, Canadian, and global standard.

I am truly fortunate for the opportunity I was given to partake in some small way in that mission, and encourage students of the University of Toronto to follow suit in attending Art, Honour, and Ridicule: Asafo Flags from Southern Ghana, which will run until March of 2017.