Thursday, 14 November 2019

The Adinkra system was originally developed in the Gyaman and  Akan nations of West Africa, the members of which now belong to the states of Cote d’Ivoire and Ghana, respectively[1]. A number of claims exist as to primacy of the system between the Gyaman and the Akan, but none of these seems to be conclusive. The designs were originally used as designs for clothes worn at funerals. They have been described as expressing ideas about the meaning of life, dramatised in the visual display of the symbols on funeral garments at the threshold between life and death symbolised by the activities embodied in funeral rites. Adinkra could be understood as related both to the intelligence or message which each kra, as the eternal essence of the human being is understood in Akan thought, takes with it from the Supreme Being when it obtains leave to depart to earth, as well as to the distillation of understanding that emerges from the experience of living and which is consummated in the transmutation of death[2].



This understanding of life as a continuity from life on earth to life beyond death is suggested in the Adinkra symbol Owuo Atwedee which represents death as a ladder which the individual climbs to ascend into a further existence, thereby dramatising the undying existence of the immaterial essence of the human being. The ladder is  at times shown as silhouetted against an empty space which becomes evocative of the space before birth and the space after death, which are identical, since the kra experiences birth and death as aspects of the same process[3].

Kumorji visualises the ladder of Owuo Atwedee as hanging towards the sky, each of its four rungs representing the progression of human life in terms of the transitional stages of childhood, adolescence, adulthood, and old age. The last, invisible rung is death, its mysterious continuity with life evoked by the translucent blue of the sky against which the ladder is silhouetted[4].


The ladder of death is suggestive, therefore, of a cyclic conception  of human existence, understood in its totality as a dynamic reciprocity between life and death, a totality attested to by Adinkra symbols such as He Won Hye, “The Unburnable” or “That Which Cannot be Burnt”, its form evocative of a sliver of light between two embryos, themselves alcoved within a soaring structure seemingly poised for flight and robust with the fecundative possibilities embodied by the embryonic forms; the entire structure reminiscent of the  spaces flanking the central passageway of the fecundative portal of vaginal space; the total form  symbolising the dynamic timelessness of the self, which projects itself from to lifetime to lifetime through the portals of birth and death, actualising possibilities latent within the varied patterns of experience of each lifetime;  


or Nyame  Nwu Na M’awu  “Could  Nyame[the Supreme Being] die, I would die”, which bears a relationship to   the proverb from Twi, the central language of the Akan,  “Onyankopon nkuni wo na odasani kum wo a,wunwu da “Unless you die of Nyankapon [another name for the Supreme Being], let living man kill you, and you will not perish”.

                                                 NYAME  NWU NA M’AWU 

These symbols and the philosophic expressions with which they are related explicitly characterize the conception of the eternal nature of the self, a continuity, however, not suggestive of mere repetition, but of the opportunity to grow into a range of knowledge and skill through experience, a wisdom and active capacity evoked by the range of ideas evoked by the symbolism of Adinkra[5].

The paradoxical indestructibility of Benghalensis, “a small, inextirpable, trailing plant”, evoked in the name of the Adinkra symbol Nyame Nwu Na M’awu, is invoked to bear witness to the paradoxical continuity between the apparent mutability of the self and its undying nature[6].The relationship between apparent mutability and persistence of being emerges within a context evoked by the form and rhythms of the Adinkra symbol Gye Nyame.




Gye Nyame is enigmatic and abstract, its composite form  bearing no relationship to any form in nature, being at best a hybrid juxtaposition emerging from the depths of an unfettered imagination It is both amoeboid in its plasticity and muscular in its suggestion of the graceful but powerful thrusts of the horns of a rhino framing the liquid centre of the shape. 

The movement of lines within space that constitutes the visual form of the symbol could be seen as evocative of both inscrutability and cognitive dynamism. Inscrutability in that its abstract form could be understood as suggestive of the ontological conception represented by the notion of ultimate being embodied in the idea of Nyame. 

This abstraction could be perceived as being neither a distortion nor a contortion of known forms but as representative of a unique formal universe, suggestive of something outside the boundaries of human perception and fashioning; the   gyrations of its thrusting forms enclose liquid permutations, creating enigmatic, abstract rhythms that evoke sonic resonance through visual space.


The difference between the visual abstraction represented by Gye Nyame and conventional shapes could suggest the distance of identity, the ontological remoteness, between the divine subject the abstractions evoke and the total field of existence. The subject evoked by the abstractions is neither This nor That definite form[7], conceptual or visual, but, in a sense, demonstrates a protean plasticity of expression that enables it to become whatever the conceiver or perceiver wants It to be.

This notion of transcendence of being and cognitive possibility is correlative with the suggestion of a cognitive dynamism evoked by the  Classical Akan religious understanding of the Creator as the eternal witness of existence Who subsumes the transformations of being into Himself. Within this context the universe is conceived in terms of a transformative process perceived in its totality only from a central point of consciousness which constitutes its origin, as expressed in the Twi proverb “Abode santann yi firi tete;obi nte ase a onim ahyease, na obi ntena ae nkosi ne awie, Gye Nyame” “This great panorama of creation dates back to time immemorial; no one lives who saw its beginning and no one will live to see its end, except Nyame.”[8].

[1] Give and compare sources; particularly Idi Ankrah presentation of various hypothesis. Then state your own speculation and your rationale for it.

[2] Relate to Danquah source for first part, to Kunene on Zulu thought on the Gods learning from human beings. And to Fortune in Cosmic Doctrine.

[3] The characterisation of the empty space against which the ladder is silhouetted comes from my sister Ifuemi Adepoju in private conversation. Refer to Soyinka’s inspired reflections on this space and passage in Myth, Literature, and the African World  which he calls the abyss of transition and how it is referred to in the introduction of Death and the Kings Horseman.

[4] Give Ida Kumorji refrence


[6] Compare with Owen Burnham’s description of the significance of the Fonio plant to the Bambara and the Dogon: “The importance of plants for humanity began when Fonio, the smallest seed, fell to the earth and spread the consciousness of the creator to all. To the Bambara and Dogon peoples of Mali the value of Fonio is immense. It is at once both the smallest and the greatest. In Fonio we hear the echoes of the past, and sitting in a field of these fragile plants listening to the wind it is truly possible to understand the spirituality of plants. Fonio   ‘is all the wisdoms’ for the Balanta Kanja people. It is the embodiment of the creative spirit, the giver of life, the gentleness of being, the entwined fragility of life and death, for it is a weak, easily broken plant, yet strong enough to bend in the wind without breaking” in African Wisdom: A Practical and Inspirational Guide (London:Piatkus,2000)43-44.


[8] Give all sources for these characterisations. Plus note the manner in which your appreciation of the implications of the plant symbolism was amplified/facilitated by the wonderful characterisation of the plant in African Wisdom

Saturday, 22 January 2011


From the 22nd December 2011 edition of the Ghanaian intellectual magazine Gye Nyame:

Abua Kofi-Iyen, a specialist in the philosophical  implications of visual forms at the University of Legon, announced yesterday  at a lecture held to promote his new book, Adinkra  Symbolism as Integrative Hermeneutic, that his research project  of twenty-nine years  into Adinkra has uncovered conclusive evidence that this symbolic system represents a visual language that integrates a broad range of symbol systems in sub-Saharan Africa.

He claimed that his research demonstrates that the symbolism conventionally attributed to Adinkra, a famous system of visual symbols developed by the Gyaman of what is now Cote d’Ivoire  and the Akan of present day Ghana, represents only a top layer of a complex network of associations to which the conventional meanings give access, but only if certain "keys of knowledge" as he called them, are available to the inquirer. He claims that  Adinkra symbolism has often been studied in isolation from its origin in an esoteric framework of knowledge which enables access to its range of meaning  because the custodians of this esoteric structure were not convinced that society was ripe for the transgressive character of the insights  the symbols make possible.

Kofi-Iyen claims that he has always been intrigued by the description of the significance of the Adinkra motifs in J.B  Danquah's The Akan Doctrine of God. Danquah describes them as representing the messages embodied by the individual soul as its own bequest as it takes leave of God to depart to earth. Danquah concludes that the motifs suggest a reflection on relationships between life before birth and life after death, between those on earth and those beyond, between time and non-time. Kofi-Iyen described himself as deeply intrigued by these pregnant comments. This led him to track down all research into Adinkra, to question as many Adinkra creators as possible, and to reflect at length upon the motifs. He says that this effort, after about eight years, at last led him to run into a particular corpus of Adinkra interpretations which differ from the conventional in that they represented a significant elaboration upon the conventionally understood significations. At times theses changes even involve an iconoclastic modification of the conventional understanding of the motifs, as if reflecting the development of a counter tradition to the conventional understanding.

He says that he traced the source of these interpretations and discovered them as occurring most frequently in an area around the Suhuma forest near Kumasi. The interpretations were the work of a group of Adinkra scholars, who, working as the heirs of  an endogenous tradition that had created the motifs in the first place, had developed them far beyond the meanings normally attributed to them. He says he won their trust after five years of dedicated effort and from them was able to gain the knowledge that constitutes the crowning glory of his work. His book describes what he learnt from them about the relationship of Adinkra symbolism to a continent wide knowledge system, which includes  such systems as the Nigerian Ifa, Afa and Oguega, the Dahomean Fa, Dogon thought and Bambara philosophies, among others. He describes Adinkra as embodying the apex of a pyramid of interpretation which integrates these and other systems, a central matrix of knowledge that enables the unity of the others to be understood.

He argues that the design motifs of Adinkra, its mathematical forms which demonstrate aspects of fractal geometry, its use of particular colour schemes, its employment of non-representational iconography, demonstrate a complex network of associations that correlates the verbal, visual and mathematical forms of a broad range of systems of knowledge in  Sub- Saharan Africa.

Response to Kofi-Iyen's research has been mixed. Some fellow scholars who have been following his work claim scepticism about his claims about a hidden tradition of Adinkra interpretation but some give credence to the logical validity of the interpretations of Adinkra in his book.The sceptics counter, however, that those interpretations do not need a story about hidden custodians of knowledge to validate them. The issue is complicated by the fact that, pressed to identify his sources, the proto-Adinkra community, as someone has described them, he claims that an inviolable condition of his learning from them was the promise not to divulge their identity. He claims, however, that they do not constitute a group different from other members of society but are simply ordinary people who have devoted themselves to a lifetime's exploration of the deeper possibilities of Adinkra that go beyond their conventional usage.

Can this story be true?
If it can be true, or cannot be, what factors make that the case?
If it can be   true, would that make its truth factual?

Monday, 27 September 2010

Gye Nyame : To Transcend

I love this image.

This is the Adinkra symbol Gye Nyame.It belongs to the Adinkra corpus  developed by the Gyaman of Cote d'Ivoire and the Akan of Ghana.

Rather than state its meaning as it  is conventionally understood I prefer to describe why I find it so compelling.This might be stimulating to curiosity to find out that meaning,and perhaps my response to the power of the image might prove helpful to an appreciation of that meaning.

It suggests something inscrutable.

It strikes me this way because it resembles no form I have ever come across.It has no similarity to other symbols I am acquainted with,whether from Africa,the Arab world,Asia,the West and the indigenous peoples of the Americas,of Australia and New Zealand.It stands alone  within its own design universe.

It suggests to me my understanding that there are aspects of the universe and possibilities of understanding that cannot be accommodated by conventional cognitive processes.Like the design of this symbol  bulges and twists in unusual contortions the mind might need to be reshaped to acclimatise itself to such possibilities.

The master of Konigsberg,who spent ten years in reflecting  on the possibilities of human reason before writing the following words,has this  to say about the struggle to know:

Human reason,in one sphere of its cognition,is called upon to consider questions,which it cannot decline,as they are presented by its own nature,but which it cannot answer,as they transcend every faculty of the mind.

It falls into this difficulty without any fault of its own.It begins with principles, which cannot be dispensed with in the field of experience,and the truth and sufficiency of which are,at the same time,insured by experience.With these principles it rises,in obedience to the laws of its own  nature,to ever higher and more remote conditions.

But it quickly discovers that,in  this way,its labors most remain  ever incomplete, because new questions never cease to present themselves; and thus it finds itself compelled to to have recourse to principles which transcend the region of experience,while they  are regarded by common sense without distrust.

It thus falls into confusion and contradictions,from which it conjectures the presence of latent errors,which,however,it is unable to discover, because the principles it employs,transcending the limits of experience,cannot bes tested by that criterion.The arena of these endless contests  is called Metaphysics.

Immanuel Kant,Preface to first edition,1781,of The Critique of Pure Reason.trans.J.M.D Meiklejohn.New York:Dover Publications.vii.

Image from J.B.Danquah,The Akan Doctrine  of God.

Saturday, 29 August 2009


An amoeba,as suggested by its near shapelesness,amoeboids being "unicellular life-forms characterised by irregularity of shape" ?A topological form,topology being the mathematical field that studies spatial properties that remain invariant even when the shape of the form changes?The plasticity of the human mind,as suggested by the empty space at the centre of a shaped exterior?The void between the celestial bodies,evoked by the empty space that holds together the external mass as the gravitational forces operating in the distance across celestial bodies, causes them to maintain orbits in relation to each other? A virus,as depicted by its amorphous shape? A meme, a cultural form that propagates widely across culture,as suggested by the plasticity of the shape, suggesting the capacity for diffusion and contextual adaptability of cultural forms?

As suggested by the hole at the centre of the shape around which flows the amorphous mass,could it represent the empty spaces that contain very few or no galaxies,existing between filaments,the largest scale structures in the universe which act as boundaries of gravitationally bound galaxies?The bending of light by gravity,and a hypothetical shaping of gravity by light,as indicated by the manner in which the hole at the centre and its surrounding shape seem to configure each other?

Could it be a visual restatement of Susanne Wenger's question in relation to the Yoruba Orisa Iya Mopo, whom she describes as both pot and potter,patroness of women's activities,including their erotic vocations of conception and child birth: "Which comes first,the pot or the hole inside it?",the empty space within the form or the form surrounding the empty space?

A black/white hole,a yet to be discovered astronomical phenomenon,which replicates in the observed form in deep space the internal configuration of the observing mind,thereby indicating the symbiotic configuration of mind and cosmos?

In the light of the previous suggestions,could it be seen as a response to Nnedi Okorafor's "Is Africa Ready for Science-Fiction?"

Is its significance limited by how it is described at its source or can it mean something else,perhaps one or even all of the suggestions presented above?

If you click on the links in the mail they will take you on a survey through biology,astronomy,mathemat
ics,physics,philosophy and psychology,all courtesy of this intriguing shape.

Copy and paste this shape onto a Word document and rotate it it 180 degrees and see what happens.

Anybody who can identify what this is should give themselves a prize.

Saturday, 3 November 2007

Friday, 2 November 2007



Flames of transformtaion
Winds of renewal

Sow my seeds among mankind

Circles of unity
Open ended-evocative of the dynamic vs the static,of open vs closed systems and patterns,of the possibly of escape from established patterns and the creation of new ones,of complexity vs the simplistic

Dance of the universe

Portal of vision
Gateway of transformation

Thursday, 1 November 2007

Time and the shaping of history

The conjunction of universes

I am time

There is much more to the Adinkra symbols than is explicated in the expositions I have seen so far. Their forms suggest possibilities for a broader range of symbolic associations than is convetionally attributed to them.

What do I mean by the idea that their form suggests possibilities for a broader range of symbolic associations than is convetionally attributed to them?

This is due to two reasons.These are their design patterns and the symbolic values attributed to them.

Their design patterns include their nonrepresentional shapes that often do not evoke any shapes that can be found in nature,their composition in terms of stark elementary colours,black and white,the dynamism evoked by their spare but strongly defined use of lines,curves,circles and spirals.

These design elements indicate an iconographic language that is capable of evoking associations without limiting the mind to particular ideas suggested by representations that are closer to natural forms or even to other well known symbols.This could facilitate the mind contemplating the Adinkra motifs ranging freely over vast evocative and associational spaces without being hampered by specific associational correlatives coming from iconographic and symbolic particularities.The mind is freer to land when it chooses,to identify with particular asociations it chooses rather than be fixed to particular associations.

The second reason-the symbolic associations alreasdy attributed to them:

They all repesent particular values centred on positive social conceptions.Some of these ideas involve social relations among members of a community,such as .Others involve metaphysical conceptions related to the nature of ultimate reality,a reality at times undertsood in what looks like a theistic sense,as described in Danquah's Akan Doctrine of God.I wonder,though,about the level of elaboration of these ideas.One needs to bexamine studies of Akan art and thought to find this out.

But to clarify this train of thought,I need to explore central texts on Akan art and thought to examine this.But even if the level of elaboration is not significantly involved,that minimalist level of ideational develpment could evoke a recognition of the need to leave the visual motif free to engage the mind of the respondent without a wall of commentary blocking a free flow of ideas. th

One could argue,however,for a community of interpretation in relation to Adinkra symbolism that is not bound by any conventions apart from those imposed by the capacities of the human mind.This possibility of interpretive freedom arisses from the relatively unelaborated chracter of Adinkra symbolism.I have not come across more than one effort,for example,to relate the form of the designs to the ideas they are meant to symbolise.That lack of elaboration implies that the symbolism has not been significantly fixed or reified,as has been done by the elite class of the priesthood in most religious traditions or by the weight of convention emerging from a broader based social symbolisation,as emerges from some symbol systems that are not necessarily religious,as with natural language.

The kind of interpretive community I am advocating,one that is not bound by interpretive conventions,would be something like the open source model in computer programming,but would be something even more open,less constrained in its creativity by the framework of codes that distingush one programme from another,or one symbolic system from another.The non-representational,often non-naturalistic forms of Adinkra motifs imply the possbility of interpreting them in relation to their established symbolic correlations or simply seeing them in an entirely new light derived from or facilitated by their starkly simple but dynamic designs.Dynamic in terms of their evocation of a sense of movement,a sense of force, accentuated by the polarisation of a black foreground,in the designs themselves,with a white background.These colours refer,of course,to only the print and electronic versons,and even then,not to all of them.But,whatever the colours used,the point remains about their sense of motion,of iconographic inscrutability,of non-linearity of representation in relation to any possible meanings.

What do I mean by a symbol? How is it different from a sign?

By a sign-at the risk of contradicting scholarly understanding of this concept I mean a visual form that demonstrates an uncomplicated relationship with its referent. By "uncomplicated" I refer to a point in a scale in a sequence of denotation and connotation. At the most literal end of the scale, we find visual forms that correspond, in a literal sense, to what they refer to. Eg,a picture, as understood from one perspective a an effort at dorect represetation. Although, at other levels of analysis, a picture can be understood to demonstrate levels of sigfication that go well beyond the basic direct signification I am describing here.

At another level, we have road signs, which represent basic instructions, using abstract visual language which at times involves representational drawings, of cars, pedestrians, etc or just a simple diagram that indicates a particular traffic instruction. In all these examples basic, simple, linearly described range of ideas are evoked.

Then we have those images that may or may not encompass such linearly realised correspondences. but they are meant or used to convey much more than that. The range of ideas they suggest might be spelt out, but they involve a complex of significations, which may be be centred around or in relation to a central idea but which are meant to evoke a cluster of associations in relation to that idea.

An example of this could be the Christian use of the cross, amongst other religious symbols. The cross represents first the manner of death of the founder of Christianity, Jesus Christ, who is understood to have been was crucified. It does in relation to what is understood to be the significance of that death as a salvific act, an act symbolised by the exposure of body represented by a crucifixion. Then beyond the fundamental nexus of what is understood to bea historical account and its attendant immediate symbolism of surrender to a mission and sacrifice of self, it evokes the relationship of this basic complex of iconographic form and its symbolic values to the significance of the conceptions of sacrifice and surrender to a self transcending vision vision preached by Jesus, where the kind of radical love of God and human beings he advocated is intimately related to self sacrifice, surrender and crucifixion,smbolically understood, whether at the hands of one's own self mortifying discipline or at the hands of others who are threatened by that style of living..

In sum, a universe of ideas is evoked from one image. One can describe this example as describing a significant number of symbols or to a significant degree the character of a symbol. Its levels of interweaving possibilities of signification. Not included here is the capacity of the symbol to evoke meanings not included in its original brief, as it were.

The cross, for example, could signifiy sacrifice and crucifixion in non religious contexts. In relationships with others. in terms of commitment to a mission. See the way it is used in the neo-religious context of the matrix, for example, where the light that penetrates Neo's body at the salvific self sacrificial conclusion is shaped as a cross-?

Or it could even evoke notions of repugnance to such ideas of self sacrifice as an elevation of weakness etc as Nietzsche saw Christianity.

Other symbols could be even more multivalent, less fixed to a particular complex of ideations, of associations and their related emotional topography. But the heart of the matter is the issue of evocative range, of the moving outward from a specific ideational, verbal or visual centre. or even centred in a particular action, as in ritual, or a commonplace action that evokes particular associations.-see zen on commonplace actions and enlightenment.-the movement of a stranger that reminds one profoundly of the actions of someone else who has affected us deeply and the relationship of that to large areas of meaning in our lives-see proust. or even aural/auditory, olfactory, kinetic symbols, symbols can emerge in relation to any of the five senses.see Keats ode to a nightingale-see basho-frog poem-see Soyinka on egrets sailing into the sun-see Brutus and Solzhenitsyn and van gogh -on the stars-see akan drum poem on the river and the path etc

Now to Adinkra.

The Adinkra forms suggest symbolic associations. One quality that stands out with them which is perhaps one of their greatest points of value, is their often non-representational character. They often do not depict, or even incorporate material forms into an ultimately non-naturalistic framework,as in combining natural elements in creating something that does not exist in nature, although the forms they depict can at times be found in nature. Their combinations, however,more often do not denote or suggest any natural form. They are also at times geometric forms, but suggest geometries different from conventional forms. These geometries could be close to what are understood as fractal forms. This largely non-representational character enables the Adinkra forms to mean anything to anybody. To evoke the free play of the human mind in an even more radically independent way than poetry, which still operates in terms of the manipulation of socially agreed symbols represented by language.

It is on account of its evocative possibilities that I think that the interpretations of Adinkra I have encountered so far need to be expanded in relation to the possibilities of this artistic and to some degree, mathematical form.

I am not advocating an expansion of possibilities of interpretation to embody a fixed canon of meanings, no matter how complex, how diverse. No.

I am suggesting that the Adinkra forms are excellent structures for contemplation. And the more they are used in this manner, with or without reference to their Classical or traditional meanings, the more they will yield fruit in ideas of particular relevance to each person contemplating them, and, by inference, to others, who are likely to find some resonance with others' sensitivities in the reflections inspired in other people by Adinkra. I am arguing in sum for the use of Adinkra as contemplative supports, as aids to letting the mind roam to those spaces that we at times find so difficult to enter into on account of the walls created by our social and embodied existence, but which prove so refreshing for our embodied and socially conditioned worlds in the soothing of our emotions, the emergence of empowering ideas,among other aspects of value.

I am exploring these possbilities through this blog-a general introduction with links to my favourite Adinkra sites -and other blogs,each of which which explores the associative value of a particular Adinkra symbol :