"The Dynamic Verbal-Visual Nexus in Akan Culture: the Language of Visual Arts"
Herbert "Skip" Cole
Through argument and vivid images Professor Herbert Cole brought to life intersections of verbal-visual communicative gestures among the Akan of Ghana (on this side of “contact” with Europeans) as socio-cultural negotiations of power. Cole’s presentation is a challenge to the popular understanding of “literacy,” “knowledge,” and “scriptures.”
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Since their first contact with the Portuguese in 1471, the African peoples living in the Gold Coast (now Ghana), have not been the same. Prof. Cole helped me understand other “ways of being” by skillfully juxtaposing the roles of oral and visual traditions among Akan and Ashanti folks, and the accompanying powerfulness, social signatures and symbols derived from varied forms of visual literacy. Cole also demonstrated how the chiefs or Kings and their councilors were, in fact, “wise individuals, eloquent of speech steep in wisdom, history through local mores, norms and laws,” who wielded the ability to maintain their domains of authority, contrary to the notions that the African mind was incapable of intelligence; a belief which held, and still holds, sway in many westerners’ minds. Here, is the first aspect of the radicalism of his presentation: the acknowledgement of the internal civility and socio-cultural organization among Othered [non-white, non-Christian] peoples. As an African struggling with my own multiple identities, I find it rather striking that our use of proverbs in a wide range of discourses not only enriches and elevates what would otherwise be vacuous conversations. I also find it agonizing that much of these cultural practices are fast being relegated or classified as belonging to illiterate and uneducated peoples. The totalizing claims of western knowledge patterns in African cultures, as displayed in western-educated Africans like me, is only suggestive of the new dichotomy and intellectual chasms created encounters between religions of conquest, Islam and Christianity, in Africa. One wonders how much of the Religious Studies being done on the continent is just a psycho-socio-intellectual reflection of the roles of historical European colonization, and its new dynamics.
That the origins of these proverbs are not known and that the people had to “memorize vast quantity of materials” testifies to the mental capabilities underwritten by the British, who equated writing and reading with understanding and consequently civilization. it is striking that while functioning as localized scriptures with no intentions of acquiring the entire world for their deities, the people used gold cast visuals and the numerous proverbs to suggest the dynamics of religion, culture and politics at play all at the same time. I am left asking what it means when “civilized” and “Christian” Europe takes the gold of so-called barbaric peoples and makes crowns for “God’s” representatives on earth? Does “God know about but still connive with the opprobrium of civilizing peoples?” Or, is “he” or “she” rather the oral potency of the colonizer’s ships and whips?
Prof. Cole’s presentation on visual/verbal discourse in Akan art offers many points of resonance with the work done by the Institute for Signifying Scriptures. First, and perhaps most obviously, Prof. Cole’s work offers a challenge to the idea that a “scripture” must be a written text in the sense that we normally understand it. Certainly the written text of the Qu’ran plays an interesting role in the Akan systems of meaning; however it is not unique among them by virtue of being from a written book. Rather, it is one symbol among many that are used to construct meanings for the community—it is joined by sword ornaments and staffs; by amulets filled with magical substances, etc. It is alongside these, not superseding them, that the Qu’ran functions as “scripture.” The meaning that is made from the Qu’ran comes not from the study or reading of the words of the text, but from the interpretation of the Qu’ran as protective. This points to the diversity of ways in which people use and interpret scriptures beyond textual practices of exegesis. Scriptures then, are not books or texts, but systems of meaning which can include texts in a variety of forms.
This raises further questions about the roles and types of religious virtuosi within Akan culture. On the one hand, there are the king’s counsel men who act as the interpreters of the “scriptures” as material objects (i.e. sword ornaments, staffs, and the like) through the recitation of proverbs. There are also shamans and healers who perform rituals and seem to serve as something like diviners, who “read” the community and offer healings and solutions in disputes. But it seems to me that there is at least one other category of “virtuosi” that can be broken down into Muslim scribes who produce the Qu’ranic inscriptions and the craftsman who create the golden ornaments which are imbued with meaning. It is well worth considering how these types of virtuosi relate to one another within the context of a particular epistemological system, which syncretistically incorporates elements from multiple traditions.
A final, slightly distinct point for consideration is the question of literacy and reading in the Akan tradition and how different forms of literacy may present themselves. For example, a scholar able to read Arabic might be “literate” in the sense of being able to offer information about what a passage from the Qu’ran in an amulet says, however, without knowledge of the systems of meaning of the Akan people, the scholar’s literacy is seemingly worthless in making sense of the amulet. On the other hand, someone without any ability to read Arabic might well be the most “literate” interpreter of the Qu’ran in this context. Literacy, then, might not always have to do with the ability to read the words of a text, as much as the ability to construct a meaning from it that makes sense to the community as a whole.
Dr. Herbert Cole presented a unique perspective on the relationship between maxims, objects, and power via the Akan Peoples of Ghana. Many different objects served as signifiers of certain power structures or hierarchies in this society such as one figurine that denoted the maxim, “The hen knows when it is dawn but leaves it to the cock to announce it.” This saying illuminates the fact in Akan society that the women know when to declare certain political activities and make certain decisions but leaves it to the leading males to do so. One of the most interesting aspects of Cole’s talk was when he spoke of certain signifiers of power such as clocks, locks, and keys. The social relationships that these objects represented are interesting: if you have a lock, you can lock someone up and if you have a key, then you can set them free. The usage of the clock was the signifier that most interested me because it was borrowed directly from European influence and was represented by golden watches. These golden watches signified control over time, which makes me ask did the Akan concept of time change when they adopted the golden watches as symbols of power? In some non-western cultures, the concept of time linearly progressing is different and some cultures don’t even have the idea of time passing hour by hour but rather by progress and changes in certain goals. Did the European concept of time, manifested by a golden watch, change the discourse about time and power in the culture(s) of the Akan peoples? Better yet, was it like the magical charms with bits of the Qu’ran embedded inside, which were largely ignored by the Akan people but still show a conversation or interaction with a culture outside their native culture? Quite simply, it was questions like the afore-mentioned that came to mind during this lecture – what did interactions with other cultures do to the concepts of time and history for the Akan peoples? What about the concepts and signifiers of “space and place?”
Dr. Cole's discussion on visual and verbal discourse in Ghana was a fascinating look into the interplay between word and image among the Akan people. Although he focused on the role of visual symbols to represent proverbs, he also touched on physical objects as spiritual totems and power signifiers. He displayed and explained symbols from various spheres of Ghanaian culture, from trinkets that represent a generalized proverb, to the flags of military groups, to the charms of a priestess, to the ceremonial swords and clothing of the king and his advisors.
Concerning the amalgamation of symbols that has developed among the Akan people, I am wondering when and how the Akan kings used the symbols and ideas that they had received from the Europeans and Muslims to subvert external interests. As Dr. Cole described, there were many times when the Akan people needed to directly confront external powers. The king would dress for war, and trust in his array of magical charms to protect him. But there must also have been times when the conflict was not so direct. Although the Akans began using lions in a greater portion of their art due to the influence of European heraldry, how was the lion as a symbol transformed as it re-entered Akan thought? In a similar way, did the conversion of Arabic script into pseudo-writing represent an intentional subversion of Muslim thought?
Dr. Cole’s presentation “The Dynamic Verbal-Visual Nexus in Akan Culture: the Language of Visual Arts," was exceptionally useful in illustrating how messages and meaning are signified in non-literary objects. These signifiers range from royal state swords, counselor staffs, and guns to non-royal flags and gold weights. The meanings behind the signifiers also range from communal images of solidarity and power, to warnings on attempts at displacing persons of power. Interestingly as well, these signifiers are developed from a variety of foreign influences like Europeans, Islam and Christianity. The Akan people who wear religious signifiers, containing portions of Islamic scriptures inside these amulets or mystical patterns and shapes adorning fans, are often unaware of what the scriptures say or what the patterns mean in Islam, nonetheless they maintain strong religious and spiritual dimensions for the Akan people.
I found it most intriguing to compare the visual/verbal signifiers of the Akan, to that of traditional forms of scriptural signifiers found in Jewish, Christian and Islamic traditions. Jewish phylacteries (פיליןת in Hebrew or φυλάσσειν in Greek), and prayer beads like a Catholic rosary or an Islamic misbaha (مسبحة in Arabic) are comparable examples to Akan amulets, bracelets, fans and the like. In these religious traditions, the visual/verbal signifiers are examples where the associated powers have exported their anxieties into instruments and messages used to keep the religious followers within the existing social structure and to keep them in remembrance of divine laws, commandments, and rituals. These signifiers not only carry meaning in the relative religious tradition, but they also carry over essential themes or meanings into other religious traditions and can even be redefined by the foreign tradition, regardless of literacy, as has been the case with the Akan people.
Dr. Cole’s presentation on the visual/verbal discourse of the Akan people prompted me to think about the ways in which discourses manifest themselves in non-literate cultures. Cole relayed that in Akan society proverbs were verbally very powerful. Proverbs were eventually illustrated or made into visual objects by casting them into gold. This process of orality being transferred into a visual representation is similar to the transition of oral tradition to written texts that occurred in historically dominant cultures.
I thought it was particularly interesting and telling that when the Muslims inscribed the Arab language onto gold amulets that the Akans had no interest in the Arabic text or writing whatsoever. They simply reproduced markings which looked something like the Arabic text. In other words, the pseudo-Arabic markings functioned more like art than a language conveying meaning.