Asafo Flags: Stitches Through Time

Gus Casely-Hayford

Gus Casely-Hayford traces the history of Asafo Flags, unique textiles from Ghana. He draws upon his own personal and historical perspectives to help us understand the lasting relevance of these cultural artefacts.

Featuring national symbols alongside local motifs, Asafo Flags conjure a vibrant past. Whilst flagging familial identity, they also served to signal existing military allegiances with arriving European forces in the 16th century. In ‘a glorious defiance against time,’ these flags provide ‘a visual metaphor for what community could mean.’

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Asafo flags. They’re part of a tradition which is about three or four hundred years old. The Asafo, or ‘The War People’, as it translates, live on the Fante coast, which is the Southern Coast of Ghana and in the sixteenth century, when Europeans began to arrive on the coast, they began to make alliances with the Fante. And these groups, when they needed to, would go into battle together. They would form military companies, and the symbols of these military companies were flags! Glorious Asafo flags. In all the towns along the coast of what is today Ghana, there would be groups of military companies who would be affiliated in different ways to the British.

They would have flags which in the corner would have the Union flag, as you would have on any kind of military banner, and then emblazoned across the actual surface of the flag, in applique, are these gorgeous images that would either tell stories connected to traditional history or they would be symbols of things that were very important to the people who lived in that region. These flags didn’t fly the whole time, and there are some flags that would be danced. So you would have a man who would unravel his flag and dance. That is absolutely exquisite to watch. This is a tradition which is still very much alive and well.

I was born in South London and, for me, Africa was a series of glorious stories that were told to me by aunts on visits, bringing hampers and rolling out incredible cloths and telling stories around these cloths

I’d always wanted to go and to actually see particularly Ghana, the place of my father’s birth, and then I got to 16 and I decided – “I’m going to do it!”

It wasn’t until I got out of Accra, the capital, and down onto the coast, out into these glorious fishing villages that string right down the coast of Ghana — it’s there that the history is most vibrant and alive and you get a sense of traditional African customs still being very much practiced. I met an old uncle, and he took me into an old cloth store and he unravelled for me a flag, and he said: “This was a flag that once belonged to your father.”

And it was enormously powerful. I mean, it was just a fraying, fractured piece of cloth that had obviously seen better days but you got a sense of how much these things mean to people. How what seemed like a ragged piece of cloth could actually represent a life, a person’s biography.

Today, many of the flags will have a Ghanaian flag in the corner where you once had the Union flag, and then you look at the actual symbols that are depicted on them. I mean – the one in the British Museum of a woman walking toward a man with her hand open, saying, I come in peace to trade with you. And the man he carries a parcel under his arm and he’s got some objects in his hand. He wants to trade them. What he doesn’t realise is behind her is the snake. And it’s this idea of, in the trade, you need to be aware that you have to think about what is behind, of being away of what the person you are trading with might have behind their back.

So the one behind us – it’s actually quite similar to the one in the British Museum. You can see that there’s an exchange happening. This is someone coming with a barrel of something. There’s a man who’s a very powerful chap, who’s probably a ‘Soopi’, a chief, because he’s carrying a sword, which is a symbol of being powerful. He’s in some way arbitrating a deal, but it is about this notion of weighing up in an exchange what is fair and what isn’t.

These flags are full of symbols, that can be historic, they can be contemporary, and they have their own kind of metaphysic; it’s not about just the military, but these are things which keep, for families, a sense of continuity.

As a visual metaphor for what community can mean, that all of these discrete little narratives, each one of them vulnerable, being unravelled in the wind, but somehow the whole thing holding together as this glorious defiance against time.

We put things in museums; but there it is to use them, to celebrate them. And that maybe using them to destruction. Many of these flags they are just threads held together by almost nothing. That isn’t a symbol of the disrespect that people have shown to them, it’s a symbol of their age, and that they’ve been worn through love. And it’s a different kind of relationship to material culture and to history that you show respect by using things rather than by trying to hold them in aspic.

With thanks to

The British Museum

Caroline Hopkins

 

Archive

Africancultural

Alamy Stock Photo

The David Rumsey Historical Map Collection

Hopkins Media and KORYE Dance Theatre in Cape Coast

Pond5

The Royal Ontario Museum

The Trustees of the British Museum

The University of Texas Libraries

VoyagesAfriq

 

Music

Audionetwork

 

Full list of images shown:

Asafo flag

Fante, 1850-1927

British Museum no: Af1978,22.721

© Trustees of the British Museum.

(CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)

 

 

Asafo flag

Fante, 1850-1927

British Museum no: Af1978,22.718

The British Museum

© Trustees of the British Museum.

(CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)

 

Asafo flag

Fante, 1850-1927

British Museum no: Af1978,22.720

The British Museum

© Trustees of the British Museum.

(CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)

 

 

Asafo flag

Fante, 1850-1927

British Museum no: Af1978,22.715

The British Museum

© Trustees of the British Museum.

(CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)

 

Art, Honour, and Ridicule: Asafo Flags from Southern Ghana

The Royal Ontario Museum, 2016

© The Royal Ontario Museum

 

Historic map of the Guinea coast

Hermann Moll, c.1725

With thanks to the David Rumsey Historical Map Collection

 

Ashanti rulers talking with British officers. Central Region of Ghana.

Unknown artist, 1900

Prisma Archivo / Universal Images Group via Alamy Stock Photo

 

Asafo flag

Fante, 1850-1927

British Museum no: Af1978,22.719

The British Museum

© Trustees of the British Museum.

(CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)

 

Map from 1896 of the British Gold Coast Colony

John George Bartholomew, 1896

With thanks to the University of Texas Libraries

 

Asafo flag

Fante, 1850-1927

British Museum no: Af1978,22.723

The British Museum

© Trustees of the British Museum.

(CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)

 

Asafo flag

Fante, 1850-1927

British Museum no: Af1978,22.722

The British Museum

© Trustees of the British Museum.

(CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)

 

Asafo flag

Fante, 1850-1927

British Museum no: Af1978,22.717

The British Museum

© Trustees of the British Museum.

(CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)

 

Asafo Flag Dance of Cape Coast of Ghana

NubiaTV17 via Youtube, 2014

 

Highlights of the Asafo displays at the Emancipation Variety Show at the Chapel Square, Cape Coast

VoyagesAfriq, 2016

 

Asafo War Dance – Traditional African Dance Performance by KORYE Dance Theatre in Cape Coast, Ghana

Yahaya Alhassan and Caroline Hopkins, 2012

© Hopkins Media

 

Asafo flag

Fante, 1850-1927

British Museum no:  Af1978,22.716

The British Museum

© Trustees of the British Museum.

(CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)

 

Asafo Flags over a Balcony

Black Star / Alamy Stock Photo, n.d.

 

People Wave Asafo Flags

Black Star / Alamy Stock Photo, n.d.

 

Dancing and Marching with Asafo Flags

Black Star / Alamy Stock Photo, n.d.

 

British Museum footage, General Views

© The Trustees of the British Museum

 

African Cultural Dancers

Africancultural via Youtube, n.d.

 

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