Ga Figurative Palanquins: Distinctive symbols of ancestry and identity

Ga Palanquin

Stories and facts

In the Greater Accra Region of Ghana, a distinctive tradition sets the Ga people apart from their Akan neighbors. This tradition involves the use of figurative palanquins, known in the Ga language as "okadi akpakai," which are intricately connected to the totems of their owners.

These special litters are used exclusively by Ga kings, or mantsemei, and their sub-chiefs during public appearances at events like durbars and the Homowo festival. Unlike the Akan's simpler boat- or chair-shaped litters, these figurative palanquins emphasize the ethnic differences between the Ga and Akan people.

A Ga chief whose clan totem is a lion must use a palanquin shaped like a lion. These totems, representing animals, plants, or objects, are deeply rooted in the history and ancestry of the clan.

When a chief is carried in such a figurative palanquin, it symbolizes protection by spirits and ancestors associated with the totem, transferring its magical powers to the chief. Beyond their spiritual significance, these palanquins also serve as symbols of distinction within the Ga community and between the Ga and Akan people.

Before colonial times, the Ga did not use palanquins but carried their chiefs on their shoulders. Ethnologist Margaret Field suggests that the boat-shaped litters were introduced to Accra by the Akwamu in the 17th century.

By the 19th century, the Ga had adopted palanquins, incorporating elements of the Akwamu's military organization. The exact timing of when the Ga began using palanquins shaped like their family symbols is unclear.

However, social anthropologist Regula Tschumi notes a 1925 reference to the King of Accra using an elephant-shaped palanquin. The use of these palanquins spread throughout the 20th century to other coastal towns.

Unlike the Akan, the Ga reserve their palanquins for secular sub-chiefs, excluding women and their highest spiritual leaders, the wulomei. A new palanquin is crafted for the enstoolment of a chief and first used during the installation ceremony. Afterward, it is stored as a royal insignia in the family’s stool house, only to be used for significant occasions like the Homowo festival.

These palanquins are rarely seen in public, especially by foreigners, and remain largely unknown as an art form compared to the well-known figurative coffins. The same craftsmen who create figurative coffins also build these palanquins. Paa Joe, renowned for his figurative coffins, is one such artisan, although he rarely discusses the palanquins he has made.

In Ga culture, the initiation and funerals of traditional chiefs must complement each other. Chiefs who used figurative palanquins during their installation are buried in coffins that resemble their palanquins.

Contrary to previous beliefs, chiefs were never buried in their palanquins, as these are royal insignia meant to last and be preserved. Instead, they were interred in substitute coffins, leading to the creation of the first figurative coffins as copies of the palanquins.

While Ga figurative coffins have gained recognition in the Western art market, the palanquins remain hidden and lesser-known. The misconception that Ga chiefs were buried in their palanquins arose because of the secrecy surrounding royal funerals, which often took place at night.

Over time, the tradition of using figurative coffins spread among the broader Ga population, with artisans like Ataa Oko and Kane Kwei creating coffins representing the deceased's occupation rather than traditional totems.

Since the 1970s, these coffins have been celebrated in the Western art world. However, the original significance and artistry of the figurative palanquins have remained largely overlooked.

The recognition of figurative coffins should extend to the palanquins, which hold a deeper cultural and historical value within the Ga community. By understanding the rich tradition of figurative palanquins, one can appreciate the unique cultural heritage of the Ga people and the intricate artistry that distinguishes them from their Akan neighbors.



Be the first to leave a comment!