"Adinkra" - stamped patterns

It is doubtful that Asante Adinkra patterns are at all reflected in African-American quilts.  Not only were few Asante enslaved (Asante power and wealth derived from enslaving other Africans); both Asante oral history and contemporary accounts indicate that adinkra originated generations after the vast majority of Africans came to America as slaves. Some adinkra motifs are believed to be loose adaptations of the symbols found on Moslem amulets that spread to the region via Islamic jihad in the late 18th and early 19th century, and which were gradually adopted as good-luck charms by followers of traditional African religions.

Compare the subdued color and delicate patterns of traditional adinkra worn by Asante leaders at a funeral (above) with the bright hues and coarse designs of modern, embroidery-embellished adinkra cloths (below). 

Throughout almost all of its history the Asante (also spelled "Ashanti") kingdom has dominated the region of Africa now known as Ghana.  It was formed around 1700 as a confederation of several smaller Akan states, of which the Asante was the most powerful and whose asantehente reigned over all.  European visitors struggled to find words to adequately describe the stately rituals and dazzling luxury of the Asante court and the spectactular artistry of the metalwork, jewelry, and carvings commissioned by royalty. The wealth to produce these works - and to purchase the imported textiles Asante elites favored as prestige items - came from two sources:  absolute control of lucrative trade routes throughout the region, and the sale to European slave traders of other Africans whose territory the Asante had conquered.  Occasionally an Asante would be sold into slavery as punishment, but evidence suggests the number of Asante who ended up in America as slaves is quite small.  

Among the textiles for which the Asante are known is adinkra cloth - white, brown, red or black fabric stamped with repeats of small black motifs, traditionally worn by elites at funerals and state occasions.  

According to the Asante themselves, adinkra cloth's origins can traced to an Akan kingdom called Gyaman, which in 1818 the Asante attacked and conquered, killing Kofi Adinkra, the Gyaman king, and taking his patterned wrapper as booty. The similarity of the vanquished king's name to the Asante words di (to use) and nkra (message left when departing), along with the circumstances of the original cloth's ostensible acquistion, may have suggested to the Akan a plausible use for it; it certainly is an appealing pun. 

It is unknown, however, whether King Adinkra's purloined garment was actually stamped, or whether the Asante came up with that method themselves.  Perhaps he actually wore something similar to a Hausa charm tunic, whose fabric is covered with hand-drawn calligraphy and talismans with vaguely Moslem origins (Picton notes that the Koranic script applied to these Hausa garments was "rather muddled") - and the Asante developed a quicker process to approximately reproduce the original designs, changing not only their appearance but their meanings to suit Asante tastes.

Circumstantial evidence also indicates a 19th century origin for adinkra.  Europeans had traded with the Asante since the 17th century, but do not mention adinkra ("native chintz") until the early 1800s, at which point they promptly sent several examples to Europe.  Also hinting at a comparatively recent origin is the Asante's ready substitution of imported cotton fabric for local strip-woven cloth, which would be unlikely had this ritual textile been an ancient tradition. 

Traditional adinkra

Adinkra worn by King Agyeman Prempeh when he was deposed by the British in 1896. Click to enlarge

Modern adinkra

Hand- and factory-printed adinkra in a variety of colors and styles for sale in Ghana. Click to enlarge

Worn only by royalty and spiritual leaders Worn by anyone
Worn at funerals and sacred ceremonies Worn on any special occasion
Commissioned by the wearer to commemorate a particular occasion or death Also available readymade
Hand printed Factory-printed cloth now also available
Each motif individually stamped Stamps sometimes reproduce multiple motifs at once
Undyed, red, dark brown or black background depending on occasion and wearer's role A variety of colored backgrounds at the preference of the wearer. Rows of motifs often separated by bands of striped rayon or silk embroidery ("Nwomu" cloth)

Adinkra motifs catalogued by R.S. Rattray in 1927

Additionally, the "lexicon" of adinkra motifs has not remained static. Over the years old motifs have been abandoned and new ones added, and the names and meanings assigned to them varies depending on context. Peggy Appiah notes that "A not very popular pattern was renamed 'James Brown' and sold out..."Nkrumah's Pencil" was renamed "Pencil" after his downfall". 

From a quilting perspective, other problems arise.  Adinkra motifs' lacy, openwork form is not easily translated to applique or piecing, and the few adinkra designs which might be said to bear any resemblance to quilt patterns are also found in the 17th and 18th century needlework of the English and German cultures which dominated American quilting.

While traditional adinkra cloth is still produced and worn, this textile originated after America had stopped importing slaves from Africa, and was originally reserved for the elites of a kingdom whose people who were rarely enslaved. Adinkra motifs, their meanings, and when and by whom adinkra cloth is worn have evolved over the past two centuries. No plausible connection can therefore be drawn between adinkra and African-American quilts.


Like what you see? Please help support this site!