Traditional Ghanaian design is most recognizable in the now-ubiquitous Kente cloth. Kente is a centuries-old textile practice, said to have originated in the Asante (also known as Ashanti) Kingdom, as clothing reserved for royalty.
A popular Asante legend tells of how two men learned to weave Kente cloth from a spider named Ananse. As the men went out into the forest at night to check their hunting traps, they were awestruck by the beauty of the spider’s web, whose intricate designs glistened in the moonlight. The spider offered to teach the men how to weave these designs with a single thread, in exchange for various favors. The men then took this knowledge home, where word quickly spread to Asantehene Osei Tutu, the first ruler of the Asante kingdom. The Asantehene designated their Kente as a royal cloth, to be worn on momentous occasions.
Today, Kente is worn throughout Ghana, and indeed the world, by members of the diaspora displaying their affiliations to the motherland. Owing to its profound ethnic diversity, Ghana—which is home to over 100 distinct ethnic groups and numerous languages—has long been a source of limitless creativity and production of art and design.
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For example: another artisanal practice deeply ingrained in Ghanaian culture is woven basketry. Today baskets take on an ornamental role in many spaces, but they were historically used to store tradespeople’s goods as they traversed West African trading routes and kingdoms. As a result, such traditions of weaving and basketry are therefore intertwined with and enriched by innumerate histories of geography, language, culture and exchange—over thousands of years. Artisanal design is also sustainable in nature, owing to the fact that items are not produced for mass-market consumption. Rather, products are handcrafted from natural materials and made in quantities to match demand, with excess materials or deadstock repurposed in new designs.
Culture is dynamic and must evolve in response to context, tastes, trends and technology.
The Nubuke Foundation—an art and cultural hub based in Accra, Ghana—plays a crucial role in the preservation and promotion of traditional artisanal practices. “In 2010 we started work in the upper west region of Ghana focusing on artisans, in particular those involved in strip weaving,” says Odile Tevie, founder and director of Nubuke. “Our creative director, renowned artist Mr Kofi Setordji, engaged with the weavers, mostly women, in a series of design intervention workshops and programmes employing innovation and creativity to expand the artisans’ collection of woven strips.” Where some may view modernization as a threat to these traditions, Tevie sees exciting opportunities. “In the same way culture is dynamic and must evolve in response to context, tastes, trends and technology, there is no doubt that traditions will similarly remain alive and relevant so long as its custodians take cognizance of its origins whilst adapting it to contemporary situations.”
For Atmos, Daniel-Yaw Miller speaks with three Ghanaian creatives, for whom the preservation and adaptation of traditional artisanal practices is a fundamental aspect of their respective trades.
Born and raised in Accra, Theresah Ankomah is a multidisciplinary creative and contemporary artist, whose work was prominently displayed on the edifice of the Nubuke Foundation as part of the institution’s Look At We exhibition. Ankomah’s practice encompasses weaving, basketry and sculpture, using natural fibers such as jute, kenaf, and palm leaves. Her artwork explores the role of everyday objects such as baskets and the ways in which they carry the experience, emotions, and memories of those who have come into contact with them.
On The Creation of A Walk Through Intimacy (2020)
“This work was inspired by the conditions of the pandemic, channelling the restrictions we all faced into creative work. No one was coming in or out of my studio, it was just me and my work. At that time I had such an intimate relationship with my work because I was seeing these pieces of art as having individual personalities of their own.
I collated these woven onion baskets from various markets across Accra and Kumasi. My craft centres on the intricacies of weaving [together] the narratives of the people who make these objects. This includes their daily activities, how and why they do what they do. All these histories are woven into my art. This is especially true for the travelling tradespeople who go to buy these onion baskets from Niger to protect their goods as they transport them. These baskets cross various borders before [they] enter the country. And once they enter Ghana, [they] are passed through numerous market spaces. These materials, therefore, carry the stories of each person who has come into contact with them.”
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“This was the reason why I wanted to explore through my art the narrative of intimacy with objects during the pandemic. In the exhibition space, I strategically hung all of the baskets so that the audience passing through would bump into them, ensuring that they, too, would become part of the woven narratives of these objects.”
Larry Jafaru Mohammed
Larry Jafaru Mohammed is a designer from Accra and is the self-taught, creative director of his eponymous label—Larry Jay. The brand’s collections are unisex, drawing inspiration from and reinventing West African textiles and traditional design. The Tiedye Robe is the perfect example of a modern interpretation of traditional Ghanaian clothing. “These unisex pieces were inspired by the aesthetic of the classic loose-fitting garments popular across West Africa, with specific reference to northern Ghanaian and Islamic (Hausa) background, where long and loose garments are worn by men and women,” Larry says.
On His First Interactions With Fashion
“I come from the northern region of Ghana, but I was born and raised in Accra. I was introduced to fashion at an early age. Somehow I believe fashion for me was in my inheritance as I grew up in a family where everyone loved or was into some aspect of fashion. I am self-taught so I made all the Larry Jay collections and more by myself. I am skilled in sewing, crafting, accessories, pattern-making, and styling—these are aided by my knowledge of Indigenous fashion and design [practices].”
We want to be known as an empowering brand, one that will give back to the communities it serves, in its own way.
On the Journey of Larry Jay
“Larry Jay is a unisex Ghanaian ethical brand, designing clothes and accessories. The collections are inspired by nature, various African cultures and artistic disciplines. My dream is for the brand to become a fully sustainable fashion house that will be responsible for its environment. We also want to be known as an empowering brand, one that will give back to the communities it serves, in its own way.”
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On Ethical Fashion
“Ethical fashion is a broad topic. What it means to us is that we source and produce everything locally, which in turn creates job opportunities for local people. We work hand-in-hand with local artisans and craftspeople, enriching the lives of those in the community.
We reduce waste by upcycling and repurposing discarded materials—or deadstock—into timeless pieces. We also use natural and biodegradable feedstocks in production, such as cotton, silk, indigo and we are known for using jute fibres.”
Akosua Afriyie-Kumi is an entrepreneur and founder of AAKS—a proudly Ghanaian, handcrafted Raffia bag-maker. AAKS promotes slow fashion, centering artisanal excellence and creating sustainable jobs for communities of the artisanal weavers who create the bags. Over the past two years, AAKS has received global attention and the brand now has stockists across the world, from Cape Town to London.
On Her Cultural and Creative Inspirations
“Ghana is a burgeoning creative hub. There is a kaleidoscope of influences and inspiration that I feel is unique to Ghana and [that] I can tap into on my doorstep, [which] is a massive [advantage] of being an entrepreneur here. Coupled with that, I absolutely love the freedom of creativity that comes with being a designer in an emerging country, working to help shape our visual world.
One of my main goals was to create a unique yet commercial enough brand or product that would be appreciated by customers all over the world. A product that will form part and parcel of one’s life, created by an ethical and sustainable process. I started researching bag designs and fibres and found a lot of attractive benefits, which were in line with the vision and ethos I had for my dream brand.”
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On What It Means to Run an Ethical Brand
“We strive on being a transparent, sustainable brand that designs small capsule collections, which focus on quality and authenticity. All of our bags are handwoven by craftsmen and women in the northern region of Ghana, using organically sourced materials. Our weavers are directly paid fair wages and their skills are developed greatly in the process. We impact the community significantly by providing employment to the local artisans and ensuring the continuity of weaving as an art that can be passed down to the younger generations. We also encourage weaving to be valued as an income earner for many in the cooperative. I hope that our brand will contribute to the revival and sustenance of weaving as a thriving art in Ghana.”
On Honouring the Traditional Weaving Practices of Ghana
“Weaving is passed down from generation to generation and my main role is to refine the weavers’ skills and techniques but not to change them. I train my team of weavers to have an eye for detail and to weave to the highest standard. My artisans have learned to create products to specifications and [are] now making bags for clients and prestigious stores worldwide. They are very proud.”