Asante (Ashanti) or Akan/Sefwi people, Ghana, Female Fertility Figure (akua’ba)

Asante (Ashanti) or Akan/Sefwi people, Ghana 

Female Fertility Figure (akua’ba), late 19th – early 20th century 

carved wood, beads, string 

Purchase, 1975 (4294.1) 

Akuaba figures are carried against their backs by Akan women who hope to conceive a child. The name comes from the Akan legend of a woman named Akua who was barren but desired to bear children. She consulted a priest, who instructed her to commission a small carving of a wooden child and carry the surrogate on her back as if it were real. Akua cared for the figure as she would a living baby, even giving it gifts of beads and other trinkets. She was laughed at and teased by fellow villagers, who began to call the wooden figure Akuaba, or "Akua's child." Eventually Akua conceived and gave birth to a beautiful baby girl; thereafter, the same practice was adopted by women who wanted to get pregnant. 

The flat, disk-like head is an exaggerated depiction of the Akan convention of ideal beauty—high, oval, slightly flattened forehead, achieved in actuality by gentle shaping of an infant's soft cranial bones. This Akuaba is rare among other extant examples in that the body is not abstracted and flat but rendered with naturalistic body, arms and legs. 

Akuaba also protect against deformity or even ugliness in a child. During pregnancy, Akan women are not supposed to gaze upon anything unattractive, lest it influence the features of her own child. Families also keep Akuaba as memorials to a child or children. The figures become family heirlooms, appreciated not for their spiritual associations, but because they are images that call to mind a lost loved one.