Fante or Asafo flags are flying into interior spaces across the globe. We have always been drawn to these rich textiles. An interesting mix of colourful, contemporary and almost retro design, contrasted by age and African tradition, causes Fante flags to stand out in the arena of African art. Their applique designs are simplistic and childlike yet riddled with symbolism and culture.
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The Fante people are found on the southern coast of Ghana, scattered between various fishing villages and small towns. Although the precise origin of Fante flags is uncertain, there are reports of their use dating back to at least the early 18th century.
Elmina, home to the Fante, was the first European settlement in West Africa and became a buffer between slavers and interior Ghanaian tribes like the Asante. The Fante people were largely influenced by the British and Portuguese, and developed their own Asafo military “companies”, adopting colonial fighting techniques, hierarchy and Euro-inspired regalia, which was adapted to fit into their own context. As a result each company, and eventually each member, designed their own emblematic Fante flag.
The companies within a village defend their community, and sometimes quarrel amongst each other. Flags are only displayed during ceremonies, battle, and to summon members to gather – an infrequency which ultimately preserves them.
When a member joins a company he commissions a new flag from the local, male flag maker, with thoughtful instruction. The flag maker designs and stitches the flag together using cotton cutouts. The reverse side of a flag always mirrors the initial side’s shapes, repeating the textile’s pattern.
Elements displayed on a Fante flag tell a story, often revealing the type of industry and activities the associating company is involved in, from fishing, hunting and farming, to designs asserting wealth and power. You will notice that post 1957, after Ghana received independence, flags sometimes display the Ghanaian flag, rather than the Union Jack.
Flags are still made in Fante villages today and represent an important part of their community, identity and culture. The have also become sort after artefacts around the world.