Duafe (Comb)

By: Adenike Cosgrove Tagged:


Demonstrating the dual nature that can exist in classic African art, Akan duafe combs represent the combination of art and function. These decorative combs are used by Akan women to groom and style their hair but also to adorn already plaited hairstyles. Duafe combs were in the past, also used for paying respects to passing men as noted by de Marees in 1602: "They have long Combes with two teeth onely, each tooth being a finger long, which they thrust into their haire and combe it therewith; for they are troubled with Lice: they use their combes also for a kind of salutation or reverence, which they doe unto men; for when they bid one good morrow. . . they put their combes out of their haire, and put them in againe, which they use for a kind of reverence..."1

Typically gifted to women by brothers, fathers, admirers, and husbands to mark commemorative events (including puberty celebrations, weddings, and births), the iconography on duafe combs reflect the relationship between the woman and the man that gifted the comb. Sources point to the fact that an attractive woman with many suitors can have up to five combs in her collection. Akan queen mothers and women in royal courts have special combs that signify their rank. With carvers dedicated to royalty, royal duafe combs are typically more elaborate and beautiful.

Distinguishing Features

  • Made of soft wood (including odum, mahogany, wawa, sese, or nyame dua)
    • Rare decorative examples made of metal, bone, or ivory (these examples are usually small in size)
  • Height = 2 inches - 18 inches
  • Width = 1 inch - 12 inches
  • Depth = 1/8 inch - 1/2 inch
  • Usually have a minimum of seven teeth (seven is a sacred number in Akan rituals)
    • Row of teeth rarely carved on top end of comb—usually numerous in number and short
  • Handle of comb carved and incised with variety of designs, shapes & motifs (delicate, openwork format)
    • Female figure or bust (usually conceptualised versions of akua'ba figures)
    • Flattened, diamond shaped head (symbolising a beautiful woman, fertility, beauty, and life)
      • Upswept bi-lobed coiffure
      • Ringed neck
      • Small conical breasts
    • Female coiffure of openwork spiral medallion surmounting female body (adinkra design; nkotimsefuopua)
    • Human head
    • Combination of male / female figures
    • Two hands (symbolising cooperation)
    • Sankofa bird with head turned backwards (symbolising a chief; 'the chief sees everything, even what is behind him')
    • Crocodile with a fish in its mouth quite common (symbol of queen mother of battle)
    • Snail (symbolising saying 'one man’s meat is another man’s poison')
    • Leopard (symbolising saying 'when a leopard is hard-pressed for food, it eats grass')
    • Two crocodiles connected by same stomach (symbolising the importance of family sharing; 'they do not have to fight over food, since it lands in the same stomach')
    • Tortoise (symbolising saying 'the tortoise has not milk, but knows how to feed its young at birth')
    • Lizard (symbolising a peacemaker; 'had the lizard medicine against acne, then its body would not be covered with it')
    • Snake (symbolising saying 'a snake is like rope but it is not to be used to tie a load')
    • Crab (symbolising saying 'when a crab runs. it runs into the sea')
    • Hens and chickens (akok oba; symbolising saying 'a hen does not kill her children, even though she may step on them')
    • Square knot (anyansapo; meaning 'wisdom knot'; symbolising saying 'anyansapo wode ndaberana nesiane'; meaning 'only a wise man can untie it')
    • Sawfish (symbolising prosperity)
    • Beetle (symbolising saying 'the beetle hides in the firewood only to be consumed by the fire')
    • Cock (symbolising saying 'don’t be so puffed with pride-after all your mother was only an eggshell')
    • Elephant (symbolising saying 'when you follow an elephant you do not get entangled with creepers')
    • Antelope (symbolising saying 'when an antelope is unhappy. the hunter is the cause')
    • Hoe (symbolising saying 'one must work to survive')
    • Stool
    • Miniature mask
    • Calabash (symbolising saying 'when water stays long in a calabash. it stinks')
    • Royal sword (symbolising saying 'no one challenges a lion unarmed')
    • Christian cross or crucified Christ
    • Swastika (symbol of attendants to royal women
    • Double spirals (symbolising the creative activities of God)
    • Heart (akoma; symbolising 'patience, honesty, and endurance')
      • Frequently two hearts are joined together with a chain
    • Key (symbolising saying 'death has the key to open the miser's chest')
    • Dates, names (usually of the female owner or of the man who presented it), and words incised into some examples
      • Rare combs have carver's signature
    • Combs from northern Ghanaian show Islamic influences including water, a half moon, and stars
    • Ivory & bone examples typically have lines, circles, and dots motifs
    • Some royal combs have gold covered handles

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