Produced by the Asante peoples in Ghana, adinkra is a flat, cotton textile that is stamped with symbols which create the meaning of the garment.  

The Details

Doran H. Ross in the Berg Encyclopedia of World Dress and Fashion: Africa (2010) in an article on Ghana explores in detail how adinkra is created (Figs. 1-2), and why it is worn:

“The second most famous Asante textile tradition is adinkra, whose patterns are created by a large inventory of designs carved from gourds and stamped with a black dye in a dense grid. Designs were originally applied on strip-woven cloth, possibly accounting for the grid work. Since the mid-nineteenth century, adinkra has been made from machine-woven fabric. Men’s and women’s cloths are sized and worn as kente.

Adinkra is typically characterized as the mourning cloths of the Asante when produced in red, dark brown, or black; the red is worn by close members of the deceased’s family. Nevertheless, adinkra may be produced on white cloth or any of a wide variety of solid colors and even on tie-dyed and multicolored fabrics. Categorized as ‘Sunday adinkra,’ these may be worn on virtually any festive occasion. Because adinkra is quickly produced, it is less expensive than equivalent sizes of kente, and has always been more accessible to a broader range of society.”

This grid design that Ross describes is exemplified in figure 3; the Metropolitan Museum of Art describes adinkra as, “among the most acclaimed textile forms from Ghana.” The cloth displayed is composed of six panels of cloth, dyed in a bright yellow pigment. It’s marked with the grid-like design with black pigment marking the symbols on the cloth. Within each separate rectangle, different patterns fill the yellow space.

In The Adinkra Dictionary: A Visual Primer on the Language of Adinkra, Bruce W. Willis breaks down the word “adinkra” and explains in depth the meaning of each part of the word:

“The word adinkra comprises three parts. The word di means ‘to make use of’ or ‘to employ’. Nkra means ‘message’ and the a is the Akan prefix for an abstract noun. Together di and nkra mean ‘to part, be separated, to leave one another, or to say goodbye.’ In the word adinkra, nkra means the intelligence or message that each individual soul takes with him from God on departing from earth (Kra is the Twi word for ‘the soul.’) Thus, adinkra implies a message a soul takes along when leaving the earth, hence the expression ‘saying good-bye to one another when parting.’” (29)

As Willis breaks down this word to mean “saying good-bye to one another when parting”, the primary function of adinkra is revealed. The British Museum has a nineteenth-century strip-woven, black and white adinkra cloth (Fig. 4), which they describe in detail:

The cloth is woven in narrow strips on a horizontal double heddle loom, and whip stitched together. It is printed using carved calabash stamps and a vegetable based dyed called Adinkra aduro (Adinkra medicine). This dye is made by boiling the bark of the ‘Badie’ tree with iron slag ‘ Etia’ for several hours until it has the consistency of coal tar.

The cloth is divided into 35 squares using a grid of triple rows and columns filled in with stamped designs of Nsroma (stars), Dono Ntoasuo ( double Dono drums) and small diamonds. At the intersection of each row and column the sqaure created is left unstamped as a 3 x 3 grid.”

The National Museum of African Art explains the origins of some of the signs (Fig. 5):

“Of the hundreds of adinkra signs and meanings that have been documented, the older symbols are most often linked to proverbs, folktales, folksongs and popular sayings. Newer designs are associated with more common themes, such as flora, fauna and everyday objects, or may demonstrate literacy of the alphabet through designs composed of letters in Roman script that spell out personal names or segments of proverbial expressions. Mastering the nuances of this graphic form of communication is usually only accomplished by well-trained artists and elders who, through study, are able to identify the names of many adinkra symbols, the proverbs associated with them and the situations best addressed through particular symbols.”

In the entry on “West Africa” in the Berg Encyclopedia of World Dress and Fashion: Africa (2010), Lisa Aronson discusses textiles that were adorned with designs in order to symbolize spiritual meaning:

“Some… textile traditions may have their roots in Islamic-inscribed cloth. One example would be Asante adinkra, a traditional funerary cloth whose geometric stamped designs of proverbial meaning evoke the aesthetic of Islamic-inscribed cloths.”

As Aronson describes, these textiles are meant to give protection to the wearer and indicate high status. In 1976, Tansoba (Fig. 6), the head war chief of the village of Yako, wore an Asante adinkra cloth that was “tailored and embroidered as a Mossi-style robe,” in contrast to the typical flat paneled cloth.

An Asante divisional chief (Fig. 7) in 2004 can be seen wearing a white silk-screened adinkra cloth, where the designs have been screen printed rather than stamped onto the cloth, showing how the textile tradition continues to adapt to new technologies.

A cloth decorator working in Ntonso, Ghana

Fig. 1 - Artist name unknown. A cloth decorator working in Ntonso, Ghana, 1988. Photo by Dan Mato. Source: Smithsonian

Stamp carver Joseph Nsiah of Ntonso, Ghana, holding an adinkra stamp

Fig. 2 - Joseph Nsiah (Ghanaian). Stamp carver Joseph Nsiah of Ntonso, Ghana, holding an adinkra stamp, 1988. Photo by Dan Mato. Source: Smithsonian

Prestige cloth (Adinkra)

Fig. 3 - Asante peoples. Prestige cloth (Adinkra), 1960s. Cotton, wool; 350.5 x 205.7 cm (11 ft. 6 in x 81 in). New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2015.614.6. Gift of Dr. and Mrs. Pascal James Imperato, 2015. Source: The Met

Adinkra cloth

Fig. 4 - Artist unknown (African). Adinkra cloth, 1818. Cotton; 276 x 202 cm. London: The British Museum, Af1818,1114.23. Donated by Thomas Edward Bowdich. Source: The British Museum

Adinkra symbols

Fig. 5 - Bosomba Amosah. Adinkra symbols. Source: Wikipedia

The head war chief (tansoba), of the (then) village of Yako, in the Tansobongo neighborhood, Burkina Faso

Fig. 6 - Maker unknown (African). The head war chief (tansoba), of the (then) village of Yako, in the Tansobongo neighborhood, Burkina Faso, 1976. Photograph by Christopher D. Roy. Source: Berg Encyclopedia of World Dress and Fashion

Asante divisional chief in silk-screened adinkra cloth

Fig. 7 - Maker unknown (African). Asante divisional chief in silk-screened adinkra cloth, 2004. Photograph by Doran H. Ross. Source: Berg Encyclopedia of World Dress and Fashion