Though prevalent in Western culture, Adinkra symbols aren’t immediately recognizable by most, and often used without reference or any credit to their origins. In Lil Uzi Vert‘s recent cover story for The FADER‘s Sex Issue, he explains quitting his first job to focus on music and his subsequent face tattoo to accompany the lifestyle change. His first move was getting the word “Faith” tatted right below his hairline.
“It was like, if I get this face tattoo, I got to focus…”
The 22-year-old Philly rapper added to his collection over time, mentioning in the interview that many of his face tats are actually Adinkra symbols. We’ve come to realize these markings are ubiquitous in art, fashion, and popular culture.
Traditional Adinkra symbols communicate important cultural ideas and beliefs.
Adinkra is a series of symbols of the Asante people of Ghana that express connections between the verbal and visual, most commonly in expressing a belief or wise saying. The small circular character under Uzi’s left eye, for example, means “God is King”. There are various theories about the exact birthplace of the African symbols, with each being capable of being true. Asante oral traditions date the arrival of Adinkra to the end of the 1818 war with Gyaman (a former kingdom of the Akan people located in what is now the Ivory Coast). According to one widespread legend, Adinkra, Gyamans’ king, was captured by the Asantes for copying the Golden Stool, a symbol of the Asante nation. Legend has it, the Asantes took Adinkra’s robe, which was covered in patterned symbols, as a spoil of war. The Asantes learned how to stamp the designs onto cotton cloth, further developing Adinkra symbology and incorporate new meanings, philosophies, and cultural elements into the symbols. This evolved form of Adinkra is most likely the one we are most familar with.
Historically, Adinkra was reserved for Asante royalty. Times have changed though and it is now worn throughout Ghana by various groups in a variety of circumstances. Adinkra means ‘goodbye’ in Twi, a language of the Akan ethnic group that Asante is subgroup of. Due to this, the cloth is typically worn on important occasions, particularly funerals, to signify sorrow and bid farewell to the deceased.
The afro pick is a rework of the Adinkra symbol “Duafe” , which represents hygiene. Just one of many examples of how Adinkra symbology has been adapted and recontextualized.
Aside from cloth, the symbols have been used on pottery and are now incorporated into architecture, sculpture, tattoo designs, and even in modern commercial designs and logo designs for companies. The symbols are extremely prevalent today, popping up in fashion, film, art, and design. The newly released concept art for Marvel’s upcoming Black Panther film features Adinkra symbols on the architecture of Wakanda. The symbols are also heavily incorporated in contemporary clothing designs, though often without reference to their cultural origins. The Obama-themed pieces in Supreme’s recent SS17 collection have come under accusations of appropriating African culture without proper credit. Much of the criticism comes from Supreme’s usage of Adinkra symbols in the pieces, which feature a gye nyame, a symbol of a the supremacy of a higher power, and the adwa, a symbol of the home.
“Osram Ne Nsoromma”, the symbol for love, faith, and harmony.
Adinkra is featured in Black Panther’s concept art in the visualization for the fictional African nation of Wakanda.
Popular skate brand Supreme has been under fire for appropriation of these sacred symbols.
The prevalence and diverse uses of Adinkra symbols today are a testament to their deep significance. Their existence and incorporation in so many different mediums and contexts attest to the beauty, adaptability, and sheer timelessness that is embedded in a society with so much depth and symbolic meaning. Trends come and go, but culture is forever.