late 1800s–early 1900s
Wood, hair, resin, and bone
Overall: 42.9 x 4.6 x 5.1 cm (16 7/8 x 1 13/16 x 2 in.)
Gift of Katherine C. White 1975.158
Akua'ba are always female, both because Akua’s first child was a girl, and because the Akan and Fante societies are matrilineal, meaning that it is women that extend the family line.
The desire for healthy pregnancies and children crosses cultural boundaries. For Akan and Fante women, a sculpture carved with the features of the ideal local beauty can help achieve that goal. Though often misnamed a doll, the akua’ba is a spiritual tool that has been consecrated by a priest. Made in the shape of the adult woman that a baby will grow to become, this figure has an exaggerated high forehead and developed breasts. Beneath each eye, markings indicate the figure has undergone a local medical practice meant to prevent seizures. The long neck with fat rings symbolizes health, wealth, and prosperity. Akan and Fante legends recall how these sculptures were created by Akua, a woman who was unable to conceive. After speaking with a priest, she was instructed to have a small wooden child made, and to care for it as if it were real. Women carry the sculptures tied in wrappers against their backs, much as they would carry a real baby; the flat shape of the head aids in this arrangement. Until a successful pregnancy is achieved, the figures are fed, bathed, and cared for as one would a real child; this example's hair was braided. Once the akua'ba has done its job in aiding in a pregnancy, the figure is retired from use.
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