About this artwork
Akan sculpture in terracotta (mma; plural, mmaa) is a significant part of the corpus of artworks dedicated to leadership. The genre is also the earliest to be documented by European visitors to the Ghanaian coast. The Dutch explorer Pieter de Marees described the setting and function of these clay images among the Fante in 1604, noting their exclusive royal affiiation. Later the use of terracotta spread to a broader segment of Fante society even though it retained its association with the elite.
It is likely that this terracotta head of a woman with an elaborate coiffure originally rested atop a pot lid. Such terracotta sculptures were made to serve a strictly funerary purpose, honoring as well as commemorating the dead. This head may represent a deceased woman. It may have stood alone or have been part of a group of figures. The Akan belief that this world and the next are parallel spheres, and particularly that rank and status in life can carry over into the afterlife, explains why several figures rather than single images were considered most appropriate to commemorate important personages.
Among the Akan, a multistepped ritual articulated this essential connection between the dead, works of art, and the community. The manufacture of clay portraits of the deceased often took place as part of second burial ceremonies, which were intended to settle the spirit in the afterlife and to place it within the constant reach of living relatives. This was the domain of elderly women who were long past childbearing age, and the artistic process took place amid a rite designed to anchor the spirit of the deceased long enough for his or her true likeness to be captured in clay. The artist needed the powers of clairvoyance to accomplish this feat.
Following its completion, the figure was transported in a public procession to a site in the forest reserved by the family or lineage. There it would be deposited with further rituals. In the past, such images were deposited, along with an array of grave goods, including diverse pottery with distinct utilitarian functions. Periodically, offerings of food, liquor, and water would be made at the site because Akan people believed that spirits honored in this way were spiritually capable of assisting living family members in times of crisis.
Fired clay figurines are still used in some Akan communities, although on a significantly limited scale. This may be the result of the increased use of photography among these people. If such images were indeed perceived as portraits, then photographs of the deceased could be seen as prestigious and expedient replacements for them.
–Revised from Nii Otokunor Quarcoopome, “Art of the Akan,” African Art at the Art Institute of Chicago, Museum Studies, vol. 23, no. 2 (1997), pp. 135-147.
- Currently Off View
- Arts of Africa
- Commemorative Head (Mma)
- Blackened terracotta
- 24.7 × 17.7 × 15.8 cm (9 3/4 × 7 × 6 1/4 in.)
- Gift of Dr. Robert Laff