Tuesday, 4 October 2016

Adinkra and Modern Christianity: Tracing its Evolution and Means of Acceptance

In the pre-literate Ashanti society, a system of visual symbols was created and conceptualized to represent concepts, as well as signify aphorisms. The collective term used to designate these visual symbols is adinkra (Leyten 333). These symbols were usually stamped on cloths as decorative elements, which also doubled as cultural ciphers. Each of the adinkra symbols had an inherent meaning and cultural signification. With colonization came the introduction of the English writing script as well as Christianity, and the Ashanti people gradually became Christianized and modernized. Correspondingly, the value of adinkra in their modern society gradually depreciated (Agbo 25). Nonetheless, the rise of the twin movements of cultural relativism and African revivalism, has spurred remarkable interest on the importance and value of adinkra in the modern Ghanaian society (Schauert 53). This paper focuses on the adinkra symbols and their interface with Christianity and modernity. The aim of the research is to show that with the fusion of cultural relativism with protestant Christianity, the adinkra symbols have gradually been accepted as a fundamental element of the modern Ghanaian society by protestant Christians. 
Adinkra Symbols. Photo Credit: Pinterest.com
Adinkra served as both a decorative element as well as a cultural cipher. For instance, akoma represented the human heart (its inherent meaning), but it also signified tolerance and virtue; and thus as a cultural symbol, it can be interpreted as meaning that tolerance and virtue must be inherent virtues to a person, just as the heart is to the body. Thus, they do convey a message, and as such they can be considered as a cultural script. The uniqueness of this cultural script is predicated on its universality. Apart from conveying its inherent meaning, the adinkra symbol could represent anything of value to the Ashanti people, including representing popular proverbs, expressing specific emotions, and even expressing specific attitudes, as well as serving as hints to specific character traits and mannerisms (Agbo 73). Moreover, adinkra also served as records of historical events. Its utility as a means of preserving the history of the people implies that it could also be considered as a modified version of a writing script (Danzy 17). Thus, adinkra symbols could be used to represent any concept, matter and even serve as a writing system, and this attests to its universality as it was never constrained to only serve as representation of specific concepts or aphorisms. For this reason, the adinkra symbols were also used to symbolize important religious concepts and values; and they thus served religious functions.
This meant that in the pre-literate society, cloths adorned with adinkra symbols could only be worn during special events or when performing specific religious functions, with the most important being burial. In fact, the word adinkra is a loan word meaning “burial”. The word is borrowed from the Gyamaan (or Akan) language, and this attests to a shared history between the Ashanti people and the Akan people as is discussed below (Agbo 81).
According to the oral history of the Ashanti people, the concept of the adinkra symbols was not indigenous to them but was borrowed from the Akan people after the Ashanti Kingdom subsumed the Akan territories, following the defeat of Gyanaam during a grueling war that ended in 1818 (Agbo 43). However, according to the British traveller, Thomas Edward Bowdich, adinkra was used by the people of Ashanti before 1818 (Arthur 23). Nonetheless, the two differing opinions can be unified using the following explanation.
The adinkra art did exist in the Ashanti Kingdom well before its war with the people of Akan, and the people who specialized with the art at that time were the Akan emigrants who were plying their trade in the territories of the Ashanti people. Thus, the Ashanti people at that time considered the art to be of foreign origin, and thus did not identify with it as part of their own. Nevertheless, when the Ashanti Kingdom conquered the Akan people and subsumed them as part of its subjects, then the Ashanti people started to identify with the adinkra art as an indigenous art form in the Kingdom. This also infers that the conquered Akan people were treated equally as the Ashanti natives, and this explains the fusion of some their cultural elements. Therefore, the incorporation of adinkra art into the cultural life of the Ashanti Empire demonstrates the egalitarian nature of the Kingdom as well as its people. This is indicative of the fact that the Ashanti people possessed an egalitarian culture.
The egalitarian nature of the pre-literate Ashanti society is also affirmed by the historian, Kevin Shillington, in his documentation of the pre-colonization life of the Ashanti people as is related in his published work, History of Africa (137). The egalitarian nature also meant that the Akan people felt as part and parcel of the Ashanti Kingdom, even after the Gyamaan was defeated (Shillington 144). It can thus be argued that the egalitarian culture of the Ashanti people provided the social platform that supported the syncretism of the two, and this led to the incorporation of adinkra into the cultural universe of the Ashanti, while the Akan people also adopted various cultural and religious elements from the Ashanti people, and also created new adinkra symbols for these adopted elements, which were then shared with the Ashanti people. This would explain the observation made by Devin Geary in her thesis that some of the adinkra symbols represented concepts alien to the Akan people but indigenous to the Ashanti people (11). Therefore, the fact that some of the adinkra symbols were representative of Ashanti values and concepts does not negate the fact that the art is Akan in origin. Nowhere were these adinkra symbols used more than in religious rites and rituals (Leyten 333).
Religious Value
It has been mentioned earlier that cloths adorned with adinkra art were specially worn for religious festivals and events. Moreover, it has been shown that the Ashanti and Akan people used an art originally developed by the Akan specialists to represent religious concepts, values and symbols. The cultural syncretism that occurred between the Ashanti and Akan cultures, also led to fusion of their respective religious beliefs, with the Akan people adopting Ashanti’s ancestor worship as a fundamental staple of their religious practice. Therefore, they represented some of these religious concepts as adinkra art, and this art was stamped on religious garments. Thus, the priests, scribes and spiritualists adorned cloths decorated with adinkra art; and this gave these cloths religious significance, which made them adored and venerated as sacred objects (Arthur 71). This would have an impact during the period of Christian proselytization.
The Christian missionaries who first encountered the adinkra art saw them adorned on the clothes worn by spiritual leaders and the royalty of the Ashanti Kingdom, and this made them regard them as representatives of the traditional worship system and practices of the Ashanti people (Konadu and Campbell 57). The traditional religion of the Ashanti people consisted of ancestor worship - and the worship of a pantheon of gods, with the supreme god being Nyame. Nyame was regarded as the supreme creator, and he was represented by a specific adinkra symbol; and almost all the religious garments worn by the spiritual leaders of the community featured this symbol (Parkes 50). The existence of a supreme god indicates that Ashanti people had a hierarchy of gods and beings that could be worshiped. Some of these gods were also represented in sculptures. Nonetheless, all the gods and mythical beings had their own specific adinkra symbol. This further deepened the perception among Christian missionaries that the adinkra symbols were representative of a pagan religion, which degraded the soul by trapping it in a religious system that devalued the true message of Christianity (Konadu and Campbell 59).
This formed the foundation for the denunciation of the use of adinkra symbols by the Christian missionaries. In the book Christian Values in Adinkra Symbols, Peter Achampong documents campaign conducted by the Christian missionaries during the colonial era to denigrate the art of adinkra by relating it to venality, idol worship and cultural degeneracy (15). Most of these Christian missionaries had the backing of the government, and thus their campaign against adinkra art was perceived by the Ashanti people as a government-sponsored initiative (Achampong 29). This perception would alter the conception of adinkra art by the politicized segment of the Ashanti population.
Liberation, Freedom and Transformation of Meaning
The perception of the missionary-led denunciation campaign against the use of adinkra art as a government-sponsored initiative by the native population led some agitators for freedom, and liberation of the Ashanti people from colonial rule, to adopt the adinkra art as liberation symbols. These agitators and political activists started to wear clothes adorned with adinkra art as a sign of their disobedience to the colonial government, which was working alongside the Christian missionaries to obliterate the culture of the Ashanti people, and thus leave the colonized people cultureless and prone to adopting alien cultures (King and Swartz 64). Thus, the use of adinkra art during the first half of the twentieth century was meant to connote the resilience of cultural preservation during a period of cultural onslaught and adoption of foreign cultural practices.
Accordingly, adinkra symbols lost much of their religious significance, and value, during the first half of the twentieth century - as their value was gradually politicized. This also meant that native Christians along with the Christian clergy increasingly viewed adinkra art as symbols that represented political and social values (and even ideals). Thus, the symbolic meaning of adinkra art was gradually transformed from its original spiritual essence into representation of secular ideals and values. This set the foundation for the mass adoption of adinkra art by all the people of Ghana, including people belonging to ethnic groups other than Ashanti or Akan. This transformation of meaning would have an impact on its use during the protestant revival that started in the 1970s (King and Swartz 93).
Cultural Relativism
During the colonial era, the missionaries propagated a form of Christianity that related all African values to paganism and idolatry, while European values and concepts were related to true Christianity. This skewed the perception of the early converts of Christianity towards adinkra art. Also, because the proselytization campaign by the Christian missionaries was largely successful in Colonial Ghana, the use of adinkra art as religious symbols declined (Pollard and Duncan 81).
During the 1960s, the movement of cultural relativism gained traction in North America and Europe, and their deepening influence on the cultural life of the Western societies also caused them to influence the religious norms and values of the religious teachers, and the clerical class, in the West. This led to the adoption of the viewpoint that Western values do not inherently define Christianity. This viewpoint provided an opportunity for Ghanaian clergymen and students of theology to reclaim Christianity, albeit with an African outlook, and this stimulated the development of African Christianity (Pollard and Duncan 103).
The version of African Christianity in Ghana during its post-independence era was usually ambivalent to the use of adinkra art, largely due to the fact that adinkra art had lost much of its religious significance during the pre-independence era, and its value was thus tied to its political meanings. This ambivalence set the stage for the redemption of the adinkra art, not as representative of pre-colonial Ashanti religious values; but now as representative of African Christianity (Pollard and Duncan 123).
Redeeming the Adinkra
African Christianity changed the worldview of most Ghanaian Christians as it gradually denuded Christianity of its colonial elitism, and gradually convinced the modern Ghanaian Christian to regard some aspects of the Ashanti culture as compatible with modern Christian life. One of the cultural modules that were integrated into the modern Christian life was the adinkra art (Konadu and Campbell 87). Thus, adinkra art was redeemed from its pagan past; and sanitized and adopted as a tool compatible with both modernity and Christianity (Pollard and Duncan 130).
In the twenty-first century, African Christianity has gained significant traction in the Christian sphere of Ghana, and it can be argued that it is the most powerful strand of Christianity in the nation. As it gained traction, it also deepened its adoption and modification of ancient African symbols to represent Christian concepts. This process of sanitization and modification has caused some adinkra symbols to totally lose their pantheistic values and meaning. This process has thus fostered the evolution of adinkra art from pre-Colonial Ashanti civilization into the modern society of Ghana (Konadu and Campbell 98). This has also enabled the Christian clergy in Ghana to wear clothes adorned with adinkra symbols even during church service (Pollard and Duncan 133). Thus, it can be deduced that the evolution of meaning and religious significance of adinkra symbols has supported its adoption into modern church service.
Adinkra is a set of visual symbols created during the pre-literate era by the Akan people, and later adopted and used by the Ashanti people for religious purposes. The pre-colonial Ashanti religion was pantheistic in nature, and its practice was heavily influenced by paganism. Initial interaction between the pre-colonial Ashanti religion and Christianity was characterized by fierce denunciation of adinkra art by the missionaries. However, colonial rule and its oppression of natives, as well as suppression of native cultures, gave rise to political rebellion which used adinkra symbols as signs of liberation. This thus transformed the adinkra symbols from religious symbols into political symbols. After independence, cultural relativism transformed the theological foundations of Christianity, and African Christianity was adopted. African Christianity hastened the process of sanitization and modification of adinkra symbols, and this caused them to totally lose their pantheistic values and meaning. This supported their acceptance as non-pagan art, which was compatible with modern Christianity. Therefore, it can be concluded that the fusion of cultural relativism with protestant Christianity allowed adinkra symbols to be accepted as a fundamental element of modern Ghanaian society by protestant Christians. 
Works Cited
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Schauert, Paul. Staging Ghana: Artistry and Nationalism in State Dance Ensembles. Indiana
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