Thursday, 22 October 2009

Fante Asafo Flags - real or fake? - old or new ? - part two

A genuine Fante Asafo flag from our gallery, age circa 1920-40. Illustrates the proverb "we control the rooster and the clock bird", i.e. we are so strong that we can even control time.
So how do we tell a real authentic flag from a fake ? What do we mean by fake in this context ? In African art circles there is a widely accepted (albeit intellectually problematic) definition of authenticity. An authentic object is one which was made for local use and which received local use before being sold. An object that was made specifically to be sold on the art market or tourist market is not considered to be authentic and except in exceptional cases will never have any significant monetary value however nice it looks. Both the condition and the design of flags provide useful indications of age and authenticity. Flags that have received local use over any significant length of time show signs of that use such as small marks, holes, stains, bleaching from the sun, colour run, damage to and curling of the tassels on the border etc. Contrary to what some dealers in the Accra tourist market hope, leaving a new flag on the roof for a few days in the rainy season does not closely mimic the effect of local use, it just makes a new flag look dusty and rained on. Old fabric has a different look and feel from new that is extremely hard to fake. So luckily if you look carefully it is very easy to distinguish new flags from old.
Turning to the design, the first important point to note is that contrary to what is often asserted the use of a version of the British Union flag in the corner (the canton) does NOT mean that the flag was made before Ghanaian independence in 1957. Clearly a Ghana flag indicates a date after 1957 when it was adopted, but the reverse is not true. There could be a number of reasons why locally used flags were still ordered with the Union Jack canton, most obviously to replace an important old flag that was damaged beyond use. Moreover the flags made in the last decade for sale in the Accra art market almost invariably have the British flag.

This is an authentic, well made and designed post-Independence flag from the collection of the Textile Museum, Washington. It illustrates the boast " We can carry water in a basket using a cactus as a head cushion" i.e. "we can do the impossible."

Genuine flags were individually ordered, usually from a professional flag maker, by Asafo society officers, to mark their promotion to a higher rank, and the design was a carefully thought out project intended to communicate a specific saying or to mark a particular historical event. As a result most authentic flags have a design coherence, graphic sensibility, and visual impact that is immediately apparent. On the other hand when a dealer places a bulk order for ten pieces to be delivered as soon as possible, the result is usually slapdash workmanship, meaningless designs or poor copies, and a resulting lack of visual impact. I am not going to post one of these but a quick search on Google or Ebay will bring up numerous examples.
One final clue is to look at the price. Authentic old flags are now very hard to source and sell internationally for thousands of dollars. Flags that are for sale for a few hundred dollars are very unlikely to be old...
Buying new flags, providing you know that they are new, and you are paying the right new price for them, gives much needed income to very poor people in Ghanaian villages. There is nothing wrong with new flags as such, they become "fakes" when someone sells them as old. Most are poorly made but if you look carefully and choose examples that are well designed and well made your purchase will also encourage the continuation of old traditions of artistry and skill. There are still some flag makers doing good work and more sales would encourage them to continue. Below is a fine new flag I found while researching this post - more here


  1. Hello,
    This is Seiwa Cunningham, whose site you got the above image from. Just wanted to check in and say hi.
    I worked with Master Flagmaker Baba Issaka on a project 3 years ago and am selling these flags to help him support his son through school.

  2. Sorry this didn't go up sooner, I was in Ghana. Good luck with your sales. Why not put up a page on Baba and try to promote him a bit more ?