Adinkra: Minimalism in African Design

Gye Nyame which means “Except God” in English is an adinkra symbol on the omnipotence of God

Indirection is a principal characteristic of speech among the Akans. To give room for escape in case one is charged with contempt, both speakers and audiences prefer to use proverbs, euphemisms, and other symbols which offer plausible deniability in communication — especially public communication.

I had long been aware of the power of proverbs in Akan speech but had been blind to Adinkra — minimalist visual symbols that convey proverbs and aphorisms. In a project on Akan symbols, both visual and verbal, I have been pleased to rediscover the power of these visual symbols, the wealth of information they reveal about Akan culture, and the depth of knowledge they reveal about their inventors.

Originally printed on cloths worn by royals to important ceremonies like funerals and religious festivals, Adinkra have now assumed universal adoption, being found on buildings, fanciful clothing, jewelery, upholstery, and even in physics where adinkra is named for stick figures representing supersymmetric algebras.

Collage of four adinkra symbols. From left to right, they are ‘owuo atwedeɛ’ (death’s ladder), ‘mako’ (pepper), ‘dame-dame’ (chequered), and ‘UAC nkanea’ (UAC lights)

Beyond communicating subtle messages, they document the history of a people who have seen important interjections in their history — such as slavery and colonization — that have altered their culture in significant ways. In a predominantly oral culture, a visual proverb reinforces important lessons the elders have passed along through the generations. But how should such visual symbols be designed in a preliterate society?

The inventors of adinkra chose everyday objects — animals, buildings, vegetables, and so on — to represent the ideas they tried to communicate. However, this did not stop them from taking excursions into the abstract with symbols like ‘adinkrahene’, ‘nea onnim,’ and ‘Nyame biribi wɔ soro’ which don’t seem strongly tied to any physical objects.

To illustrate the universality and certainty of death, they chose a black ladder with a few rungs, depicting the proverb “Owuo atwedeɛ baakofoɔ mforo,” meaning “Death’s ladder is not climbed by one person.”

To represent uneven development and inequality, they chose the cross-section of a stem or branch of a pepper plant bearing many peppers, depicting the proverb “Mako nyinaa mpatu mmere,” meaning “All peppers (even on the same tree) do not ripen simultaneously.”

The symbol for intelligence and strategy includes the chequered pattern found on the board game draught (or checkers) in its design. The Akan version is played on a 10 x 10 chess board and with slightly different rules.

‘UAC nkanea’ is an adinkra symbol which reflects technological change in the society at a particular period: the time when street lights were introduced in Kumasi, the capital of Asante. The design, which shows four-fold rotational symmetry, depicts four interlocking floodlights and, according to G. F. Arthur, became a symbol for the widespread perception of economic domination experienced at the hands of United Africa Company (UAC) businesses.

Most adinkra consist of simple shapes and lines and are quite easy to draw. However, this does not mean they are bereft of deep meaning and significance. By carefully selecting which symbols appear where, one may be communicating volumes without uttering a word.

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