Art Through Time: A Global View
Portraits Art: Memorial Head
Known as “memorial heads,” Akan terracottas like this one were created upon an individual’s death, both as a form of commemoration and an object into which the spirit of the deceased might be invoked. In Akan culture, the practice of creating memorial heads appears to go back at least as far as the seventeenth century, possibly to the late sixteenth.
The Akan, who inhabit areas of present-day southern Ghana and the Ivory Coast, continued to make these heads over succeeding generations and in some areas, produced them well into the modern era.
Despite the fact that even the most naturalistic of the heads appears to depict generic features, the terracottas are considered to be portraits. Rather than attempting to copy the unique physiognomy of the individual, these portraits identify their subjects through hairstyles, scarification, accessories, and other visible signs. For the most part, however, they focus on more conventional symbols and shared traits indicative of social and aesthetic ideals. Rings around the neck, for instance, allude to layers of fat that signify health, beauty, and success.
During most of the history of these terracotta heads, they were reserved for royalty, and many of their features are specifically designed to convey the subject’s elite status. The facial expression exhibited by portraits like this one tends to be neutral and even distant. This might reflect the look that Akan royalty actively cultivated, one that suppressed individuality in favor of regal character. It has also been suggested that the quartz fragments in terracotta pieces such as this were intended to produce a kind of luminosity akin to that sought by royal persons who on ceremonial occasions covered their bodies in shea butter containing gold dust.
The most explicit sign of status associated with the portraits, however, is the shape of the head and facial features. Like this head, the portraits often possess round faces with high, broad foreheads and prominent arched brow bones that connect with the nose. This ideal not only shaped representation, but also living people. Akan mothers molded the still-soft bones of newborns’ heads and faces to achieve these desired traits. Significantly, women were also traditionally the makers of terracotta heads.
Christa Clarke, Senior Curator of Arts of Africa and the Americas, Newark Museum
“In Ghana there is an important historical tradition of making terracotta heads to both represent a deceased ancestor and to serve as a point of communication with that ancestor’s spirit when they’ve departed. And these are typically made by female artists who are actually summoned to the death of an individual to get a sense of their likeness, what they look like, distinguishing features. But interestingly when these are created, they’re not portraits in the sense of a Western portrait—they don’t really have this realistic representation of particular facial features. What the artist has done is conveyed specifics of the individual through hair style, through scarification marks, and what we might consider external distinguishing features that serve as a marker of individuality in this culture, the Akan culture. And these terracotta heads are then placed in sites that serve as a shrine or a memorial to the deceased, where they continue to serve essentially as a focal point of devotion in honor of the ancestor and as a way to make connection with that particular individual after life.”
Borgatti, Jean, and Richard Brilliant. Likeness and Beyond: Portraits from Africa and the World. New York: The Center for African Art, 1993.
Cole, Herbert M., and Doran H. Ross. Arts of Ghana. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1977.
Gilbert, Michelle. “Akan Terracotta Heads: Gods or Ancestors?” African Arts22.4 (August 1989): 34–43, 85–86.
Preston, George Nelson. “People Making Portraits Making People Living Icons of the Akan.” African Arts 23.3, Special Issue: Portraiture in Africa, Part I (July 1990), 70–76, 104.
Visona, Monica, et al. A History of Art in Africa. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2003.