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Beyond the Bauhaus: West African Adinkra Symbols

November 6, 2019 / By Kaleena Sales

Beyond the Bauhaus

Much of what has informed graphic design education comes from the Western world, with a heavy emphasis on principles and practices from movements like the Bauhaus, Constructivism, and the International Typographic Style. This narrowed lens ignores design contributions from many parts of the world and perpetuates a narrative that “good” design must be derived from these specific origins. At what point are we, as design educators, responsible for challenging this narrative? The content featured in Beyond the Bauhaus aims to highlight design contributions from underrepresented cultural and social groups that do not have roots in modernist or Bauhaus methods. The goal is not to deny the contributions of the Western world, but to broaden the scope of what we teach and discuss in the classroom, while providing ideas toward practical applications of the referenced work. Submissions from readers are encouraged. Contact Kaleena Sales (ktucker2@tnstate.edu) to submit a feature.

Adinkra symbols created by the Akan people from Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana

Adinkra symbols were designed by the Akan people from Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana during the early 1800s. Many Adinkra symbols use radial or reflective symmetry and express deeply symbolic proverbs related to life, death, wisdom, and human behavior. These symbols were often painted or stamped as patterns onto fabrics (Adinkra cloth), pottery, and more. 

The Sankofa symbol is one of the most recognized of the many symbols, and is typically presented in one of two forms. One version shows a bird with its head turned backwards placing an egg onto its back. The other shows a heart with ornate endings. The meaning of the Sankofa symbol is generally understood to be “Reach Back and Get It” or otherwise interpreted as, “Look to the Past to Understand the Present.” Research shows that these symbols made their way into the designs found on wrought iron fences created by enslaved people from West Africa who worked as blacksmiths in New Orleans and other cities throughout the United States. 

In Breaking Down Fences – Revealing The Past by Waltrina Kirkland-Mullins, the author writes about the work of these West African blacksmiths, “Their artisan know-how was transferred and incorporated into the American framework without recompense or recognition.” She later writes… “Asante artisans were adept in crafting decorative symbols into wood and metal objects; although often unheralded in the archives of history… Note too that most slaves received no remuneration or recognition for services rendered.” 

Possible Implementations in Design Studio Courses 

    Semiotics

    Logo Design

    Pattern Design

    Balance

    Gestalt Principles

The work discussed here is only a small overview of the art & design from the Akan people, and is not meant to represent the totality of their contributions to society. Many historians and artists have done important and helpful research into this area, including Robert Sutherland Rattray, author of Religion and Art in Ashanti (Oxford, 1927). Much of what is known about the Adinkra symbols is possible because of the Akan ancestors of old Gyaman, and of Ntonso. 

References 

Breaking Down Fences — Revealing The Past by Waltrina Kirkland-Mullins 

Religion and Art in Ashanti by Robert Sutherland Rattray

The Storytelling Ironwork of New Orleans by Morgan Randall

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