Field Notes: Curious about Asafo Flags

By Kristy Tillman

I first became curious about the Asafo flags through one of our recreational design sessions at work. I was initially struck by the graphic stories told on each flag. I was also curiously intrigued by the incorporation of some variation of the British union flag in the distinctively local motifs. Within the context of Ghana's colonial history it seems a logical part of the narrative, but the ironic juxtaposition of the two typologies were not at all lost on me. The flags that are made post independence tend to either have no external flag representation or the Ghanaian national flag.

Asafo is a term used for loosely organized military companies of the Fante ethnic group in Ghana. The Asafo were initially charged with defending the territory state but they also are involved in additional stately and social affairs such as inauguration of chiefs and religious events. Each company has a set of flags that illustrates its values through graphic interpretations of proverbs and they can be seen paraded proudly at festive occasions.

Historically, the flags can be traced back over a period of 300 years. The motifs on the flags asserts the wealth and power of the group and serves to challenge its rivals through a distinctive set of symbols, colors and patterns representative of the company. The narratives range from local proverbs, to favor from God and military superiority in capturing enemies. The design language captures a striking balance between traditional story telling and military pomp and display.

The images are striking by their simple, powerful forms; its composition points at a preference for asymmetry, which has a dynamic effect. The flags are constructed through a variety of techniques such as patchwork, embroidery and applique. Each new flag has to be approved by the highest authority within the hierarchy and subsequently inaugurated in a special ritual before it becomes active.

Photographs © Tim Hamill


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