Akua’Ba (Fertility Figure)


By: Adenike Cosgrove Tagged:


Akua’ba (pl. akua’ma; meaning ‘Akua’s children’) are small fertility figures found in shrines across Akanland. The Akan believe that, "the name akua’ba comes from the legend of a woman named Akua who was barren, but like all Akan women, she desired most of all to bear children. She consulted a priest who instructed her to commission the carving of a small wooden child and to carry the surrogate child on her back as if it were real. Akua cared for the figure as she would a living baby, even giving it gifts of beads and other trinkets. She was laughed at and teased by fellow villagers, who began to call the wooden figure akua’ba, or “Akua’s child.” Eventually though, Akua conceived a child and gave birth to a beautiful baby girl. Soon thereafter, even her detractors began adopting the same practice to overcome barrenness."2

Following the example set by Akua, barren Akan women, or those newly married and hoping for children, have a personalised akua’ba figure created to reverse the curse of infertility. These figures are blessed and consecrated by Akan priests in atano shrines; the priest prays to the spirits to deliver a living child to his client. Once consecrated, the owners of the figure must care for it like it is indeed a living child, the figure must be caressed, carried, protected and fed, some are even given jewellery in the form of glass beads and clothing to enhance their beauty.

Once the owner becomes a mother through birth, the akua’ba is returned to the priest and added to the spirit’s shrine as a thanks offering for the real child delivered. Atano shrines can feature up to 10 akua’ma figures; the large number of figures is a sign of the spirits power and ability to help Akan women conceive. In some cases, the akua’ba figure is kept by the family as an heirloom or giving to the child as a toy.

NOTE: The Akan refer to all human figural sculptures as akua’ma even those not intended as fertility figures.

Distinguishing Features

Common features among all akua’ma:

    • Made of wood
    • Face confined to the bottom half or third of the head
    • Sweeping eyebrows that converge on the bridge of thin nose
    • Bulging coffee bean or half moon eyes
    • Delicate, small mouth
        • Set low on the face, positioned at the very bottom, leaving no chin
    • 2 - 3 short horizontal or plus-shaped incisions on cheeks (just below eyes)
    • Neck usually long
        • 3 - 8 rings on neck
    • Backs of the head of some figures have incised or low relief carving
    • Body is highly abstracted and geometric
        • Neck, upper torso, and upper limbs carved as connected cylinders
        • Cylindrical torso with simple indications of the breasts and navel
        • Torso ends in a base (legs rarely depicted)
        • Base slightly larger in diameter than its cylindrical torso
    • Always carved as female
    • Beads sometimes ornament the waist and neck
    • In profile figure is relatively flat

Regional variations (Ashante sub-group):

    • Head slanting diagonally to body
    • Flat, disk-shaped head
    • High, oval forehead
    • Mouth same width as nose
    • 3 or more small holes on faces
        • One on top of head
        • One on each side of lower part of face (for small bead earrings)
    • Carved with or without arms
        • Short, cone-shaped arms project at right angles from torso
        • Sometimes holes at end of arms (for insertion of beads)
        • Full figured (with arms and legs) are recent productions (20th century)
    • Blackened, glossy finish

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