Based on the testimonys of the first European visitors, the art of funerary terra cotta owes its origin to the arrival of Europeans on the African coast and particularly with the expansion of the Catholic religion. There was certainly a kind of iconoclast practice as seen elsewhere...
In any event, the terra cotta pieces are idealized effigies representing the deceased, devoid of all human virtues, particularly of all the aesthetic traditions we find in the representation of living beings. These funerary portraits were fired in furnaces, so the sculptures were hollow to avoid cracking during the firing process. Generally, there is a hole in the back of the head to allow gases and vapors to circulate and evacuate.
They are full size, very realistic, and very wonderfully crafted. The work is elegant, fine, and delicate, and the clay itself is homogeneous, of a beautiful quality, soft, as if it had been maticulously chosen, lengthily worked, filtered, and mixed.
The Akan had very quickly understood the terra cotta's resistance to moisture and termites, and had chosen clay as the perfect material for their commemorative sculpture.
The European travellers also tell us that the sculptures were painted, reinforcing their naturalist aspect. The terra cotta would be covered with a kind of very subtle make-up, like a temporary element that time has since erased.
Certain characteristics of the face, of the distinctive anatomical details, like the size of the eyes and the lips, the height of the face, were done in quite formal processes intended to commemerate death, easily identifiable and immediately recognizable.
Let us not forget that the Akan, more than a simple death cult, represent and establish a bond with the beyond, a kind of footbridge towards even more power, more knowledge, and more wisdom. The deceased, for the Akan, move on to a higher level of existence, enabling them to help the living during times of crisis. This statuary thus reinforces the spiritual bonds that the living have with their ancestors making it possible to draw from these capacities which the dead have acquired.
It is important to know that this practice of funerary representations lasted until the 1940's, decreasing in popularity and eventually disappearing in the last century and replaced by the simpler, and much more frustrating for sculptural art, photograph...