(See Handicraft outlet listings under Handicraft Shops and also Gifts.)
West Africa is rich in arts and crafts, and much can be found in Ghana. Art for art’s sake does not traditionally exist in Africa; everything that was crafted had some purpose or meaning behind it. In Ghana, you can find beautiful hand woven textiles, old and new beads, brass works, gold jewelry, ceramics, paintings, sculptures, and wood carvings.
Please note that there is a substantial tax on Ghanaian antiquities exported from Ghana. If you buy anything that looks like an antique, be sure to get a receipt from the seller and a statement or certificate from the National Museum to the effect that your purchase is not an antiquity. It should be relatively easy.
Following is a brief description of the major forms of arts and craft found in Ghana.
A particular textile associated with Ghana is the adrinkra cloth which bears the symbols by the same name. The cloth is generally associated with funerals and special celebrations. However, the symbols can be seen everywhere, from walls to candlesticks to tro-tros. Each one has a name and a meaning, as well as an aesthetic appeal. For more information on adrinkra symbols and their meaning, find a copy of Values of Adrinkra Symbols by Adolph H. Agbo (Ebony Designs and Publications, Kumasi); available at Artist Alliance Gallery and other places.
Beads play an important role in West African life. They are worn to signify special occasions, wealth, and status. They indicate stages in life, such as motherhood or mourning; and they become a symbol of office for chiefs, traditional priests, and other figures in the community. Beads were used in the barter for slaves, ivory, palm oil and gold in previous centuries. Some beads are imbued with special powers and some tribes believe their ancestors sprang from beads. In Ghana, beads are made from recycled glass, brass, bauxite, shells and seeds. It is a great field trip to go to one of the many bead making sites in the Krobo area. Beads from all over the world are available in the markets here. An excellent book on beads is called The World of Beads. (see Travel and Accommodation section for detailed information.)
Another common craft in Ghana is items made from brass. These are made by a method referred to as lost wax casting. The item is originally formed from beeswax, and a mould is made around it. The wax is melted out and molten brass poured in. The craft began as the production of gold weights, which were used historically to measure currency (gold dust) by the Ashanti. Often the piece represented some proverb or adrinkra symbol. Later, brass was used in place of gold, making it more widely available, and today items made from brass are mainly for decorative purposes.
Traditional pottery can be found in almost every region of the country. It is made to serve such purposes as holding water, eating and cooking, and even today many people still use clay vessels in their day to day life. Pottery is made almost exclusively by women in Ghana. Often pieces are decorated with patterns and symbols, which have significance in the community, and though the pottery varies from region to region, it shares simplicity of shape and the burnt markings that come from being pit fired. However, in Kpandu in the Volta region the women potters make animal shapes, which are unique to all of West Africa, and the women in the North at Sirigu are noted for the painted decorations on their pots. For those who prefer contemporary pottery, beautiful kiln-fired pieces are increasingly available.
Jewelry and Gold
Ghana, formerly the Gold Coast, has an exciting jewelry industry. It is well known for its gold, but silver is also prominent. Most gold jewelry is 18 karat, although both 22 karat and 14 karat are available. Ghana's handcrafted gold jewelry, moulded in unique cultural symbols, embodies the Ghanaian personality. Ghanaian goldsmiths are exploring a mix of Western concepts interwoven with African motifs. The traditional adrinkra and contemporary designs make their work unique. These designs are displayed in many shops. It is also possible to sit down with most reputable jewelers to create a special design. They are also able to copy designs from magazines and pictures, readily welcoming opportunities to create unusual pieces. Be sure to shop around, however, as the price per gram does vary considerably from store to store. For more information about gold in Ghana, get a copy of Ashanti Gold by Professor Edward S. Ayensu (Marshall Editions Development Ltd. London, 1997).
Another textile associated with Ghana is kente, the intricately hand-woven, brightly-coloured cloth. There are two types of kente: the Asante and the Ewe kente. Weaving kente is labour intensive work and takes years to learn, making the end product expensive, but a wonderful keepsake of time spent in Ghana. This large piece of cloth is traditionally worn in a toga-like fashion by men, and the colours and patterns of each piece carry meaning. Two excellent books on kente are African Majesty: the Textile Art of Ashanti and Ewe by Peter Adler (Thames Hudson, 1992) and Wrapped in Pride: Ghanaian Kente and African American Identity by Doran H. Ross (UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History Textile Series No. 2).
Painting as an art can be seen in many public domains, from brightly coloured fishing boats and signs for hairdressers and barbers, to the symbols painted on the mud walls of homes in the north. Contemporary paintings can be found adorning the walls of many hotels and businesses. There are many good galleries around town, especially the new Artists Alliance Gallery on Beach Road, before the La Palm Hotel. Several Ghanaian painters, most notably Ablade Glover, Larry Otto, Gabriel Eklou and Wiz have achieved international recognition, but still produce locally.
Carved Wooden stools occupy an important place traditionally in Ghana. In the South, a chief's highest symbol of office is the stool (in the North, it is an animal skin). In ordinary households, stools will be given as gifts for certain special occasions. Between the base and the seat of the stool is where the artist can be most creative, and you will find a wide range of symbols carved into this space, each one carrying a meaning. A good history of the stool and its significance in Ghanaian culture is The Sacred Stools of Akan by Peter Sarpong (Ghana Publishing Corp., 1971).
There are many other forms of wooden carving that not only play a significant role in ceremonial and traditional life, but that have an aesthetic value as well. Look at the carvings on the top of chiefs and linguists staffs, each embedded with symbolism.
The ubiquitous akuaba fertility dolls come in many different shapes, sizes and styles. There are also many masks and sculptures available. Masks are often copies from other African cultures as there is no tradition of mask making in among the tribes of Ghana.
The coffin makers take pride in their craft by designing unique coffins in the shape of fish, birds, beer bottles, coco pods, cars and much, much more.