As the saying goes in the Akan language, “Nyansa bunu mu ne mate masie” or “In the depth of wisdom abounds knowledge and thoughtfulness. I consider and keep what I learn.”, per the Akan Cultural Symbols Project. Although all cultures have their proverbs, fables, and stories, used both to entertain and to teach, none seems to have joined the word so closely with an image than the Akan peoples of Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire, in West Africa. Their symbolism not only plays an important role in their art but it also plays an essential role in day to day life.
Although people speak and write of “Akan symbolism,” it is important to note that the Akan speaking peoples of West Africa are made up of several different groups, such as the Ashanti or the Fante, to name only two. Along with their shared language, there are also shared cultural values and symbols that seem to be widespread. Historically, as early as the 1400s, the Akan people were known for their metal arts, casting in gold, iron, and brass. It is no coincidence that Ghana was once known by its British colony name of Gold Coast (1821-1957). While their metal art (along with textiles, ceramics, and wood carving) is often displayed as though it were fine sculpture, and deservedly so, it was never art for arts sake.
By joining symbolic images taken from stories and proverbs to particular functions for items of metal and other materials, specific messages were communicated in sophisticated and subtle ways. From brass weights used to measure gold to colorful stamped clothing, from the tops of umbrellas to stools used by chiefs, Akan symbols or adinkra seem to permeate life at nearly every turn and touch on all sorts of topics. Take, for example, the dress of a woman that is made of cloth called “kurufue ti ka nani bii” or “Co-wife rivalry is like cow dung” which is actually short for “Co-wife rivalry is like cow dung: the top is dry but the inside is sticky.”
Although many adinkra have found their way into western tattoos, perhaps none is quite so elegant or well known as the sankofa symbol. The Akan proverb states “Se wo were fi na wosan kofa a, yenkyi” or “There is nothing wrong with learning from hindsight.” The term sankofa comes from the words “san” (return), “ko” (go), and “fa” (look, seek, and take). The image of the mythological bird with its head bent looking backward has been interpreted and re-interpreted in several different ways. At times, it can symbolize the chief who can see all, even things behind him. It has also been used as a symbol for the Akan idea that the past can help to guide the future or the thought that, if a mistake has been made or something is forgotten, the wrong can be righted and that one can learn from experience. More recently, the sankofa symbol has also alluded to a historic past or heritage that is uniquely African and is remembered with an eye toward building the future.
The pleasing symmetry of the abstract designs that typify many adinkra, along with their clean lines and the subtle visual cues as to their meanings, have made them ideal symbols in tattooing. Whether tattooed as a single symbol or as a group of related symbols, adinkra such as sankofa are typically done in solid black. When looking for a tattoo choice that so completely combines ancient and sometimes mythic images with a rich and often wry traditional wisdom, it is difficult to see what could surpass Akan adinkra.