Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Wood Carving in Ghana

"I am coming to cut you down and carve you, receive this egg and eat…do not let the iron cut me, do not let me suffer in health.
…a prayer said by a carver to the spirit of the tree.
Documented by Prof. R.S. Rattray in a thesis “Religion and Art in Ashanti” (1927)

my souvenirs
Many years ago, I had the opportunity of spending a week in Accra, Ghana on business.  Like a typical tourist, I brought back a few carved wooden souvenirs. Not until recently did I become aware of the extent of woodcarving in Ghana and its importance to the economy of the country.

Wood carving is done throughout Ghana, but it is mostly centered in the Ashanti region just north of Accra.  The small villages of Aburi and Ahwiaa are mentioned often on the web as wood carving centers.  The wood carving tradition was always an important part of the culture of  the ethnic Akan people who, for centuries, have occupied all of Ghana and part of the Ivory Coast.

modern Ghana sculpture
Today, Ghanaian wood carvers produce an endless variety of figurines and plaques for the tourist trade, or for export to other countries.  Some are cleverly designed with modern African figures and animals.  If you go back 100 years or more, however, you wouldn’t see such individual creativity.  In the old days, carving was done as a communal, not individual, form of expression.  Deviation from community accepted standards and designs was tabooed.  Carving was done under the strict direction of clan leaders, and was totally done by men.  Not every man carved.  The carvers were seen as a privileged minority endowed with special skills from God.  They even had their own secret initiation rituals for apprentices.

carving a djembe drum
The traditional Ghanaian carved wood items include: drums, masks, (Akuaba) fertility dolls, mortars and stools. All these items are still made and exported today.   The form and design of these items has changed very little over the years.
an Ashanti stool
The stools are a topic by themselves.  They were a symbol of status among the tribal leaders and can also be a carved record of maternal genealogy. They are carved from a single piece of wood.  The seat part is curved and represents the warm embrace of a mother. The center middle section contains symbols that indicate the owner’s beliefs, history or values. Most stools had an Adinkra symbol on the front.  These symbols were also stenciled on cloth. They are used today on many handicraft items.  Most modern Ghanaians know the meanings of each Adrinka symbol. The symbol on the stool in the photo above is called Gye Nyame, or "except for God", and indicates the supremacy of God.
carving stools
Since ancient times, trees in Ghana were considered dwelling places of supernatural spirits and powers, both benevolent and malevolent.  The trees felled for carving were given certain ritual purification rites.  When a carver acquired a new set of tools, the tools had to be pacified to solicit good and cordial relations from the spirits.  Strong alcoholic drinks were poured on the tools and special libation prayers were offered.  (See an excerpt from a prayer at the top.) 
In Ghana, the primary woods used in carving are Sese (Holarrhena wulfsbergii) and Tweneboa (Cordia millenii). The tweneboa is a sacred tree.  Its name literally means "drum tree".  It is relatively soft and easy to carve and sometimes already hollow, which makes it ideal for drum making.  Most Kpanlogo drums are made from tweneboa.  Other woods used include: Afromosia, Mahogonay, Odum “Iroko”, Cedrela and Sinuro.
a young carver
The wood carvers in Ghana today work 10 hours a day, 7 days a week. They make their own tools out of iron and steel and keep them very sharp. Do a video search on-line for “Ghana wood carvers” and you will see some amazing carving with simple tools, and no fancy vises or fixtures. I especially like the drum carving video.
The information in this post was obtained from various sources on the web including an informative report entitled "Carving Tradition in Ghana", by the Ghana Natinal Commission for UNESCO.