The Origin and Meaning of Adinkra Symbols
Adinkra is a cotton cloth produced in Ghana and Côte d'Ivoire which has traditional Akan symbols stamped upon it. The adinkra symbols represent popular proverbs and maxims, record historical events, express particular attitudes or behaviour related to depicted figures, or concepts uniquely related to abstract shapes. It is one of several traditional cloths produced in the region – the other well known cloths being kente and adanudo.
The Akan people (of what is now Ghana and Côte d'Ivoire) had developed significant skills in weaving by the sixteenth century, with Nsoko (present day Begho) an important weaving centre. Adinkra, originally produced by the Gyaaman clans of the Brong region, was the exclusive right of royalty and spiritual leaders, and only used for important ceremonies such as funerals – adinkra means 'goodbye'.
During a military conflict at the beginning of the nineteenth century, caused by the Gyaaman trying to copy the neighbouring Asante's 'golden stool' (the symbol of the Asante nation), the Gyaaman king was killed. His adinkra robe was taken by Nana Osei Bonsu-Panyin, the Asante Hene (Asante King), as a trophy. With the robe came the knowledge of adinkra aduru (the special ink used in the printing process) and the process of stamping the designs onto cotton cloth.
Over time the Asante further developed adinkra symbology, incorporating their own philosophies, folk-tales and culture. Adinkra symbols were also used on pottery, metal work (especially abosodee), and are now incorporated into modern commercial designs (where their related meanings give added significance to the product), architecture and sculpture.
Adinkra cloth is more widely available today, although the traditional methods of production are very much in use. The traditional ink (adinkra aduru) used for stamping is obtained by boiling the bark of the Badie tree with iron slag. (Because the ink is not fixed, the material should not be washed!) Adinkra cloth is used in Ghana for special occasions such as weddings and initiation rites.
Note that African fabrics often differ between those made for local use - usually replete with hidden meanings or local proverbs - allowing locals to make a particular statements with their costume – and those fabrics produced for overseas markets which tend to use more 'sanitised' symbology.