The Ashanti tradition is mainly concerned with the detailed and refined representation of human heads, both male and female. The pieces to be found here are all from between the 16th and the 18th centuries, from a succession of small kingdoms. The pieces are representations of tribal chiefs, kings, queens, courtiers and others close to the royalty.
However these are not strictly represtative portraits, even if if certain details underline the naturalism of the sculpture: scarifications at the corners of the mouth, simple chignons or more complicated multiple braids, small buns...
The association of funerary representation with royalty is confirmed by several sources, both oral and written. These accounts show that, in the past, when an Akan chief or leader would die, a terra cotta representation of the deceased would be ordered from a wise old female artist. Gradually, the Akan royal portraits tended to be idealized and attributes of physical perfection are often manifest: wrinkles and prominent, well crafted eyes, nose and mouth, are all criteria of beauty in the Akan culture.
In the Ashanti funerary tradition, there are 5 or 6 different types of statues, most of them not well known. We will touch on only the two types of Akan Ashanti statuary which are represented on this site: round heads and flat heads.
These are small (10 to 20 centimeters), generally carved only on the front, and have schematic facial features: well crafted eyebrows, ears, defined hairstyle, precise scarifications, and prominent eyes, often closed.
Much bigger than the flat heads (the real size of a normal head), their aesthetic is also more important. These superb heads are finely decorated, and show multiple naturalist details.
Generally, the statuary is elegant, fine, sophisticated, and very realistic. One could almost say naturalist, as these terra cotta heads are natural sized, which accentuates the realism and the great expressivity of the faces: the eyelids, sometimes even the pupils, the wrinkles, and mimicing smiles. In all ways, and always, the royal statuary is not only the largest, but also the most ornate of all the figurines found at a burial site. The style of the hairstyles is used to dictate the position in life the effigy represented: certain pointy chignons at the top of the head are a sign of social distinction, another style is characteristic of Akan priests, another is reserved for other elites adding gold ornaments and jewels, and the multiple bows in the hair which we sometimes see undoubtedly represent ancient nuggets of gold...