Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

Asante Royal Funerary Arts

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Asante peoples gave expression to their beliefs about death and the afterlife through the medium of clay. From the second half of the sixteenth century, two traditions of terracotta sculpture produced by Akan women played a role in funerary rites that memorialize the dead. Burial sites of ordinary people were marked by relief-decorated terracotta vessels specially commissioned as gifts to the deceased (1980.68). These pots and dishes were not designed to hold food, although it is possible that in some cases they were used in the final meal that marked the end of the funerary rites. In the southern Akan region, royal graves were accompanied by freestanding clay heads and figures. Varying widely in size and style, these sculptures combined individualized features with idealized traits, presenting the deceased as unique people who embodied valued principles of beauty and leadership (1978.412.563). Figural groups representing musicians and other court attendants were also placed at gravesites, perhaps to serve and comfort the dead ruler in the afterlife. These forms, and the gravesites in which they were placed, also functioned to manage fertility issues. Women who had difficulty conceiving children visited burial grounds and left offerings in the hope that the spirits of the deceased would intercede on their behalf.


Alexander Ives Bortolot
Department of Art History and Archaeology, Columbia University