“Who is Ron? That’s always a question I ask as well.” And so kicked off our conversation with the Dutch collector of Akan akua’mma (also spelt akua’ma) figures from present-day Ghana, Ron van Doorn.
Ron spends much of his time on the African continent as a trauma surgeon for the Red Cross. “I feel at home there… and African art makes me feel part of that Continent. That’s one of the reasons why I started collecting,” Ron explains.
“I started collecting maternity figures but soon found that I could not afford a lot of the pieces I wanted. I visited a few galleries and came upon fertility dolls. They were much more affordable and what surprised me was the lack of information and literature on akua’mma.” And thus began a ten-year collecting adventure, one that ultimately led to the accumulation of more than 170 akua’mma figures.
And what did Ron do in response to the lack of literature? He wrote a book dedicated to akua’mma figures of course, the first of its kind. A book that provides a scholarly dissection of the silhouettes, heads, marks and scarifications, and groups of akua’mma. “When you first see akua’mma, you think they’re all the same but they’re not, there are a lot of differences. Having many figures makes it much easier to distinguish the good from the not-so-good.”
Below we provide a snippet of the book, the introduction that highlights Ron’s fascination with these figures and his personal collecting journey.
You hold a book dedicated entirely to one of the icons of Africa art: the akua’ba, plural, akua’mma (sometimes written as akua’ma). In ethnographic literature, such a book is lacking. Akua’mma are shown in many books, but most of the time the information ends with telling the story of Akua, a woman born on a Wednesday, who could not conceive. In short, a diviner whom Akua consulted told her to take care of a wooden statue as if it was her child (ba), so the name akua’ba means ‘child of Akua’. At last, she gave birth to a beautiful child. Other women followed her example, and the cult of akua’mma, Wednesday children, was born.
This book contains three important parts plus an addenda. First, an overview by Herbert M. Cole, is followed by chapters revealing the basic backgrounds to understanding the role of akua’mma in the Asante society; like the complex family bonds, their religion and the organisation of the state. Information is provided about the wood and paint used. The history of the akua’mma is followed by some personal opinions about authenticity, and the way to relate to damaged akua’mma. This general part is completed with the relevance of symbols, in which the opposite opinions of both authors are clearly expressed.
A second part displays, in photographs, all detailed aspects to be seen on these sculptures. An afterword by Herbert M. Cole finalises this part.
Third, all 172 ‘Wednesday children’ discussed in the preceding chapters are presented in several photographs, each ordered by height. All ninety available museum akua’mma are shown in the last part, ordered by age. This part can be seen as a reference work for most types of Asante akua’mma known.
Only Asante akua’mma are described in this book, other Akan tribes (i.e., Fante and Brong or Bono) have different forms to be discussed in a further volume.
The roots of the Asante and other Akan states are not completely known. Surely there were many migrations; the incorporation of slaves and wars took place in earlier centuries. During all those incidents, different peoples mingled with each other and eventually developed their own cultures. Different Akan states rose in the southern parts of what we call now Ghana and Ivory Coast.
In the second half of the 17th century Osei Kofi Tutu and the priest Anokye, united the Asante under the Golden Stool. which formed the basis for the great empire, which lasted until the end of the 19th century. This history is published in detail by Ward 1958; McLeod 1981 and Mc Caskie 1995.
I became interested in African art thanks to a patient of mine, Dineke Beereboom. She and René Wijffels had an African art gallery not far from my home. I did not know anything about art and even less about African art, which was inspiring.
First I wanted to collect maternity sculptures, in order to combine this hobby with photographic work by my wife, concentrating on mothers’ deliveries and babies. A lot of these objects are large and many are very expensive, so I changed my scope to the so-called “fertility dolls” (a term that does not cover well the meanings of akua’mma, as discussed in the foreword by Herbert Cole). At that time, Cecile Kerner had her exhibition at BRUNEAF: “I dolls” and Julian Flak had an exhibition about biga (which means “child” in Mossi) from Burkina Faso.
In the beginning, the akua’mma were not very attractive to me, but that changed. After the first Asante pieces, a lot of others followed. Thinking that all items were unique turned in a disappointment when I found a similar one.
Research followed growing interest, as well as my wondering why there was no book dealing with all those interesting aspects, like the significance of the drawings on the backs of heads, the facial scarifications, and the differences in style. Exploring the database of Guy van Rijn: African Heritage Documentation and Research Centre (AHDRC), searching items from museums and auctions, in combination with all the objects I photographed in my travels, I got a better understanding. The idea grew to take all together and try to write a book about the subject.
We planned to visit Ghana again, with emphasis on the Asante, to see and feel the places where the women have lived, delivered and raised their children. To photograph the environment of living. To question the elderly to find out reasons for all kinds of forms and symbols. Rattray wrote in 1927 about the difficulties to get to know the old meanings, the (secret) knowledge will never be told to a white-skinned stranger who stays for just a short while.
To make a long story short, we did not go…
Our first akua’ba was collected in September 2010, number three in February 2012, and the rest is history. Most akua’mma were bought in galleries: 42 from Cecile Kerner; six from René Wijffels; four from Rut Caelenbergh, Frank van Craen, David Norden and Julien Flak; and one or two from 33 other galleries. Auction houses provided 29 akua’mma, Zemanek-Münster delivered eight of them. Ten from Bernd Muhlack and fourteen from Lars Olsen entered the collection, directly or indirectly via Cecile Kerner. The Olsens bought several sculptures in Ghana during their stay during the 1960s and 70s. Other private collectors who sold to me were Udo Horstmann and Richard Ulevich. All the provenances are found in the last part of the book.
The collection has expanded to over 170 pieces, great ones, good ones and lesser examples. All of them have something to add to the story. With the enthusiastic and professional help of my wife, we wanted to create a book full of photographs. It could have been done with much less effort, just show all the akua’mma and let people think and decide for themselves. We choose to show all kinds of detailed information. When you go deeper into the material I hope you will find the joy and excitement that I have found.
When the manuscript was nearly completed, and after the hard work of a corrector, I wrote to Herbert M. (Skip) Cole, asking if he would kindly write a foreword. He agreed, yet one of his major concerns was the large number of modern pieces, which others call ‘fake’. So he went through the collection of photographs and divided them into ‘good’ (authentic), ‘question mark’ (unsure of authenticity) and ‘modern’.
We discussed our respective opinions a lot, also including comments by Guy & Titus van Rijn and Anita Schöder, and separated the goats from the sheep. Emailing about many interesting topics, our ideas changed and we decided to collaborate in order to write a more important work. I am amazed that Skip Cole found the energy and spirit to discuss and partly edit some of my texts. Over the months, we learned a lot from one another.
With the help of the above mentioned, I was able to access museum collections to create a large corpus of akua’mma that entered collections before the 1960s. There are more pieces made before the 1960s in different databases, but often information on the accurate dating of figures is lacking. In total, 35 pieces were identified that entered museums before 1960, together with forty other museum pieces, they serve as a kind of reference, published in the back of this volume.