"Frankaa" - Fante Asafo flags

How and by whom asafo flags were used makes this Fante adaptation of a European custom unlikely to be reflected in African-American quiltmaking. 

Two 19th century Fante asafo flags with Union Jack cantons, the left one from 1863; 

compare the crowned lion in the flag at center with the British royal coat of arms, right. Click for details and closeups.

The Fante, an Akan people who live along the Ghana coast, traded extensively with Europeans, and were avid buyers  of imported cloth.  Lacking a standing army, during the 17th century the Fante organized military groups called asafo which were responsible for guarding all or part of a town and also provided protection for European traders.  By the 1727 wars against the Asante, European powers had successfully pressured these asafo to adopt European military practices such as naming and numbering their companies, marching in formation, and fighting under an identifying flag which they swore to defend, dramatically carried by a designated flagbearer. (In an interesting example of cultural back-and-forth, Lord Baden-Powell is supposed to have modeled the Boy Scouts on the asafo's organization.) The earliest flags may have been painted or drawn on raffia cloth but, as is the case today, most flags were made of appliqued trade cloth, which the Fante had in abundance.   

The origins of the asafo flag are evident in its composition.  For most of the 18th century, asafo carried the flag of the European nation they fought with, and both early and modern examples are the same size as European flags and strongly resemble them, complete with canton (until independence in 1957, typically incorporating the Union Jack), mottoes, and fringe, and using simplified animal imagery to represent traits of strength, wisdom, and cunning.  Their very name, frankaa, is said to derive from vlaggen, the Dutch word for "flag".  Similarly, a waist cloth said to have been designed by an 18th century Asante priest contains a central motif imitating the British crown.  

By the end of the Atlantic slave trade era, asafo flags had developed a standardized, overtly confrontational imagery aimed at provoking other asafo.  Throughout their history, display of the flags has often triggered inter-asafo violence, to the point that in the 1860s, the British required each flag be vetted and registered, a practice that continues today. Except during special occasions, when they are accompanied by an armed guard that is not merely ceremonial, they are stored away with a special protocol, and are not shown to non-members except indoors and with special permission of the asafo leader.

A flag may be commissioned by the asafo to mark a special occasion, by a supporter as a gift, or by a new asafo leader; when a leader dies, his flag becomes a memorial object.  For this reason, all flagmakers are professionals admitted to a special guild.  Although women may be asafo members, they may not make or use the flags.  The flagmaker either copies or modifies an existing design selected by the asafo, works from suggestions the asafo provides, or uses his own imagination to develop the asafo's chosen theme.  When a design is decided on, the flagmaker prudently keeps his patterns so that replacement flags can be made in the future. Eventually these designs came to be regarded as something akin to heraldic devices.  

More than a dozen different fabrics (usually cotton, but sometimes luxury cloths) are used, with details embroidered in chainstitch.  To make the flags double-sided, the back is a mirror image of the front, which requires letters and numbers to be reversed.  Adler and Barnard note that while early flags have no fringe and very simple borders, if any, modern examples have borders that are "loud and large, using electric colours that are stunning and effective, but that sometimes threaten to swamp the images within."  Human figures on all the flags have a similar, animated and very appealing form.  Torsos are twisted to show both shoulders. The heads are comparatively large and carefully modeled, with prominent noses, wide-open eyes and curlicue, long-lobed ears embroidered in contrasting thread.  When not holding weapons, the figures' oversized hands often point expressively at the image's main figure.   

In comparison to the carefully appliqued and embroidered flags of the 19th century, modern asafo flags are often crudely done; many are made for sale to tourists.  Because their construction and use was limited to a limited group of men who displayed them only on special and somewhat chaotic occasions, and because during the slave trade era they were a recent adaptation of a European introduction, asafo flag techniques and designs are unlikely to be reflected in African-American quiltmaking, particularly in the Deep South, which had few Fante slaves.

Efik/Ibibo flags 

In a description of a mid-1830s human sacrifice in the Calabar (possibly the Efik or Ibibo people), Henry Vere Huntley describes "war canoes" bearing on poles "...all manner of flags, formed from the various manufactures [i.e., cloths] of England and other places, such as gaudy handkerchiefs, ribbons, strips of linen, and here and there a striped shirt.."  I have been unable to locate any example or other mention of these textiles.


Edo/Fon (Benin) appliqued banners and robes

The people of this small but powerful and wealthy West African kingdom were, like the Fante, actively engaged in trade with Europeans; much of their wealth came from the capture and sale of their neighbors as slaves. The appearance of their stunning artwork is comparable in many ways to that of Europe during the early Medieval period.  The elites of Benin used a variety of brightly-colored European fabrics in distinctive ceremonial textiles which were neither made nor used by the general populace.  Less than five percent of American slaves came from the general area known as the Bight of Benin; very few of those were Edo, and most were brought to America before 1790.  By the time quilting became widespread in America, few Edo would have been alive to pass on their traditions.  

Appliqued royal banners

Use of these banners was limited to elites; evidence suggests they originated late in the Diaspora, and clearly indicates fundamental symbolic and stylistic changes since the end of the 19th century. Like that of the Fante asafo flags, their applique style has few similarities to the Harriet Powers quilts to which they are often compared.  Powers was born half a century after the last of the tiny fraction of American slaves taken from this kingdom arrived in the US.   

The two known quilts that Georgia-born former slave Harriet Powers made in the late 1890s have often been compared to the appliqued royal banners of the kingdom of Benin. 

These banners, displayed on walls and carried in procession, were about the size of the asafo flags made by the neighboring Fante, and had the same purpose: to convey the power and prestige of their owner - in this case, the king.  In appearance and function they also resemble the bas relief wall decorations called noundide which were the prerogative of the king and others of rank and also adorned temples.

Bas reliefs from King Glele's mid-19th century palace; the lion represents King Glele. 

Detail photos by Brian McMorrow; click for details.  

As in other kingdoms (such as the Akan), a major function of art was to emphasize the ruler's power.  By publicly redistributing wealth, public punishments such as floggings and executions, and in massive displays of spectacular textiles, ruling elites engendered in the populace simultaneous feelings of awe and pride.  

Appliqued regalia such as banners, headgear, tents and (imported) silk and velvet umbrellas indicated both who held power and what power they held.  It was so important that not only these objects but the imported cloth used to make them was reserved for royalty on penalty of death. They were produced only by the court guild of tailors at the royal capital of Abomey. 

According to Fon oral history, the first banners were commissioned by King Agonglo, who ruled from 1789-1797 (near the end of the years Africans from the region were transported to the US). The first palace with bas reliefs was constructed in 1708, so if the banners are their textile descendant, this also suggests they probably did not originate before the mid-18th century, when royalty is described as being seated under massive (>30 feet) appliqued canopies.  And while vivid descriptions of these textiles are common in mid-19th century European accounts, they are almost never mentioned before then. Such a date is also implied by their use of imported fabrics (themselves evidence of power) in a variety of colors in imitation of the brightly-painted bas reliefs.  But as Margaret Trowell suggests, "similarity of subject matter and necessity for large and simple treatment of forms" may be the reason they share a common style. 

When an individual was elevated to royal status, he was given a plain white cloth which he was expected to decorate over time to advertise his achievements.  He would discuss the general theme of a design with a member of the banner-making tailor's guild, who was then responsible for the actual design and execution.   But no one, writes Thomas Livingston, "really pretended that all the reliefs related to the crucial or stellar events of the king who had them made....informants told [Waterlot] that the artists employed by the king often followed their own fancy, or more probably flattered their patron...."  

Early examples show stylistic conventions similar to those on Fante asafo flags. As in European medieval painting, there is no attempt at perspective,  and the size of figures relates directly to their importance.   Typically the banner featured a large, central figure surrounded by smaller figures in various action poses. It was easy for the public to recognize the banners' aggressive character; the scenes of violence and domination clearly spelled out the ruler's overwhelming power.   (The banner at right, the earliest known example, depicts King Glele as a lion; the light-skinned figures are Fon, the dark-skinned their enemies.) 

After the French abolished the monarchy and the restrictions on the status use of appliqued cloths in the 1890s, not only ruling elites but lower-ranked individuals began using these textiles in their homes as wall decorations and even pillow covers.  Men's groups such as burial societies also began to commission banners, using a new and very different style consisting of a series of isolated images illustrating proverbs and hunting scenes.  Such cloths were considered an important part of the funeral even the lowliest member of the community.  Thus while appliqued banners' underlying purpose remained relatively constant (to illustrate an individual's achievements and demonstrate various kinds of strength or power), when and how they were displayed changed, and the way the messages were conveyed became more oblique and indirect. 

Above, banner in the Palace Museum depicts an alligator attack, decapitation, warfare, capture and a roaring lion; below, a banner with the same design from the museum gift shop is devoid of the violence central to the banners' original purpose; below right, applique banners in the Palace Museum gift shop.

But by the mid-20th century, production of appliqued textiles had become almost exclusively commercial. Although made by the same tailor family, rather than being personal, commissioned objects for powerful elites, they were now produced for anonymous consumers, most of whom were tourists.  During the 1950s-60s independence movement, a popular design contained the most recongizable symbols of the Fon kings, arranged in chronological order.  The typewritten description that accompanied it, however, did not relate clearly to the images, resulting in misunderstandings about Fon use of proverbs and ways of thinking.

To further appeal to the tourist market, violent subjects and motifs are now rendered nearly unrecognizable or gradually disappeared entirely.  The weapons, corpses, hanging and decapitation scenes which had so vividly illustrated the king's power have been eliminated; when they are pictued at all, today the lion (symbol of King Glele) smiles, and the shark (symbol of King Gbehanzin) has lost his teeth.  Locally handwoven fabrics are sometimes used in these new appliques because tourists regard them as more "authentic" - even though such textiles were not used in the originals.

Georgia quilter Harriet Powers's figures do contain stylized appliqued forms. But whether compared to traditional or contemporary Fon banners, a closer examination shows that Powers's designs share not much more with Fante or Edo applique than they do with that made in turn-of-the-century India.   

One of Harriet Powers's Bible quilts. 

Click to enlarge.

Powers's quilts literally illustrate historic events (or Biblical events which Powers would have regarded as historic); she uses perspective in arranging her scenes; her human figures are unclothed silhouettes whose size does not vary based on importance; and their heads and hands are proportional to their bodies, face front, and lack the embroidered details unique to Fante and Edo applique.

Moreover, by the time Powers was born in 1837, 96% of American slaves were born in the U.S. rather than in Africa.  Even aside from stylistic differences it does not appear possible that Powers's late-1890s applique quilts derive from passed-down memories of these royal banners. 


Appliqued royal skirts

During some ceremonies the king of Benin wears a skirt appliqued with royal motifs arranged in a careful, regular repeat.  This appears to be a relatively recent development, probably in imitation of earlier cloths with woven designs.   

"Pangolin skin" robes

These dramatic ceremonial garments were made of European red wool, a product whose use was monopolized by Benin elites.  Few Edo of any status came to the US as slaves; it appears that during the Atlantic slave trade era these red robes would have been a recent innovation. 

Chiefs of the kingdom of Benin regard the pangolin (spiny anteater) as illustrating their relation to the king:  "The pangolin is the only animal the leopard does not kill". They appreciate not only the toughness but the beauty of its unusual skin, which they wore centuries ago as ceremonial robes.   

Above left, pangolin or spiny anteater; right,  17th century bronze panel showing figures wearing actual pangolin skins, with every scale detailed; far right, 1970s red cloth "pangolin skin" robe.


Through their trade in slaves with Europeans Benin royalty had access to red wool cloth which, besides being a luxury item in a vivid, universally- meaningful color unavailable locally, may have had the added bonus of recalling the tunics worn by British military officers.  This they used to create a garment that not only mimicked the appearance of the pangolin skin (and continued to be  referred to as ikpakp' ekhui), but set the wearer apart by its exoticism, particularly since Benin royalty carefully controlled the use of this rare red fabric. These new ceremonial garments combined local and foreign objects and symbolism to send a new and impressive message of simultaneous authority over their inferiors and defiance toward their king.

Although they may have had access to red European wool as early as the 15th century, the red wool "pangolin skin" garments appear have been adopted much later.  Mid-17th century Benin bronze reliefs, known for their realism, show highly-detailed suits of actual pangolin skin, each of whose scales has been carefully textured; 18th century European travelers also describe the skins being used.

Evidence suggests that any resemblance between the "pangolin skin" robes and and the 20th century "pine cone," "pine burr" or "target" quilts made by African-Americans in the Deep South is coincidental.  More closely examined, their overall effect and construction methods appear different (a single, solid-colored fabric in overlapping, unidirectional rows of continuous, notched fringe, versus squares of assorted printed fabrics folded into points spiraling from a center axis). Target quilts may have their origins in small table squares and chair mats, and may be a variation on the late Victorian "cat's tongue" form of these which were made of wool.  The earliest examples of actual quilts coincide with the availability in the late 19th century of cheap cotton calico, of which these quilts required many yards.  The February 1933 Antiques magazine found them as far west as New Mexico, described as "piquito" (little beak) quilts,  and the Pennsylvania Amish used a similar method for table mats.  By the 1950s, only African-Americans continued to use this method for quilts.

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