I have to admit that I wasn’t sure what to expect from the Asafo Flags of Ghana exhibit at the Mingei International Museum. I was very pleasantly surprised to learn about these important parts of the culture of Ghana. We had a nice turnout on a beautiful Tuesday. With free museum Tuesdays and Spring Break, parking was a little more challenging than expected, but everyone found a spot and made it to the museum on time.
We were welcomed to the museum by Christine Knoke Hietbrink, Head Curator/Director of Exhibitions. She explained that the name Mingei is a combination of two Japanese words meaning Art of the People which describes the type of exhibits and art work the museum displays. The Mingei started in UTC with 5000 square feet of space but moved to its beautiful 41,000 square foot facility in Balboa Park in 1996. It now features weaving, rugs, pottery, glass, small sculptures and other arts and crafts from over 140 countries.
Our tour was led by Docent Carol Hinrichs who walked us around the flags, told us of their history and helped us understand what the flags represented. There are 36 Asafo flags in the Mingei’s permanent collection, all hand sewn and used at some point by Ghanaian Asafos. An Asafo is a group or “company” within a village or city. Smaller cities may have one or two Asafos while larger cities may have many more. Each flag tells the story of its Asafo. They feature animals and people, weapons and mythic creatures. Reflecting the fact that the Ghana people often speak in proverbs, the flags carry proverbial messages. In fact, the true meaning of some of the symbols is not always known. However, it is certain that the flags depict the status, wealth and strength of the Asafos.
In Guana, the flags are not hung on poles but actively used, even today, in energetic ceremonial dances to taunt rival Asafos. Their use was evident by frayed edges or patched portions of the flags on exhibit. In Ghanaian culture, only men were and are allowed to make the flags, touch the flags and dance the flags. Carol pointed out the ironic fact that the Mingei’s flags were collected by and are now cared for by women.
After touring the flag exhibit, Kristi Ehrig-Burgess,
Library, Archives and Digitization Manager, took us into her world. As her title indicates, Kristi wears many hats. She runs the Library, which is open to museum members, docents, scholars and volunteers. It houses 10,000 books on folk art, crafts and design and over 30 years of institutional archive materials, documenting past exhibits, site plans, meeting minutes and more. Her goal is to digitally document the archives and the 26,000 objects in the collection and make much of it available online. There are already 5,000 objects available via the Mingei’s website and she hopes to have almost all of the collection completed and online in a year. She has an army of interns and volunteers at her disposal to help in this monumental task.
We ended the evening at Panama 66, the outdoor restaurant at the San Diego Museum of Art where we enjoyed food and conversation under the pleasant glow of their heaters.
Thanks to Kristi for helping to organize the visit and take us inside a wonderful exhibit and Library. We hope to see you on April 21st at the Gemological Institute of America in Carlsbad. Details will be coming soon!