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.


Anonymous said...

First ! -


Nice commentary. I know it takes time to generate content on a blog and this one looks put together nice.

Anonymous said...

nice post!!! we have this post of our shop. you can visit of of our site.visit woodcarvingarts.webs.com

Indian Craft Export said...

Well, it is a very nice creation for sure and nice artwork is done as well. There are several wood workers around the India sharing their expertise by crafting beautiful creations like these. Indian craft export is one of the leading wooden handicrafts suppliers and it can be found at http://www.indiancraftexport.com/product-category/wooden-handicrafts/

Carol Jones said...

Your art is amazing. I am in possession of a piece that I am hoping you can identify and give me a little information on the piece. I have photos I would like to send to you. Any help would be appreciated.

Shawn said...

I am here in Accra Ghana now. Had some workers come over to the house to fix the gap in the top/bottom of my door. The showed up with nothing but hand tools, strips of mahogony and cedar and sweat equity. I was envious of thier tools, and they said they made them! I so want to ask to buy his plane; and still may. But is anyone else interested in buying tools hand made here? If so, I may empower this guy to buy them and ill distribute to anyone else interested.

Dave Pepper said...

Where in North America (Canada, specifically) would I be able to purchase a copy of the Old Saw Wood lady sculpture ?

Dave (dapepper@telus.net)

Ivana Juliet said...

want purchase a copy of the Old Saw Wood lady sculpture.

wooden letters said...

This is really nice because it well informative for me and hope for others also keep it continued so that we can get benefits Wooden Symbols. Really very helpfull!!!

Nikolai said...

Unreal beautiful figures. You can say that this is real Wooden Art. I liked most of all the statuette of a girl without a trunk. I wonder what idea the master put into this figure.

How much time does it usually take for you to make one virgin statue?

WWR said...

As I was looking for information on Ashanti stools, I came across your blog. To my surprise, I have the exact stool as that of the stool represented in the photo on the front page of your blog. It's old, very old and was acquired at a consignment store in Alexandria, VA between 2012-2014. I have tried to determine the meaning of the symbol on the front. Do you know what it represents? It was not one of the symbols contained elsewhere in your blog.