Styles in Adan Figurative Carvings

By Michael Yates


22 Aug 2012 The Adan are a small group of people who live in south-east Ghana. If there is one thing that characterises Adan figurative carving, then it is its diversity. In a previous article I described three basic types of figurative carvings.[1] These are – figures having two arms and two legs, figures lacking one or more limbs, and figures carrying something on their heads. In some cases Adan carvings can be very similar to some carvings, such as the one shown below, made by their neighbours, the Ewe


Styles in Adan Figurative Carvings
Ewe figure. Height 27 cms




In some African societies only certain people may carve figures. Often, as in the case of the Dogon people of Mali for example, it is the blacksmiths who are the mask and figure carvers. This can mean that carving styles are limited and that it can sometimes be easy to recognise the work of individual carvers.In the case of Adan carvings, however, there are so many styles that it is extremely difficult to recognise the work of individual carvers, or ateliers. I have no idea if the Adan people have specific carvers, or whether or not anyone can carve their figures. But, occasionally, one does come across examples which are clearly from the hand of the same person Sadly, nobody seems to have carried out fieldwork into Adan art. I know of no books or papers on the subject. The observations and comments that follow are my own and, as such, could be incorrect. I am submitting this paper in the hope that somebody will, before it is too late, carry out a proper study of Adan art. In the meantime, here are some of my own notes, based on my collection of Adan art, which may be of use in trying to understand some of the styles found in Adan art. In Appendix 1 I show a number of figurative pairs. These were either bought, or were being sold, as pairs by dealers. Prior to this appendix I list seventeen different styles of figurative Adan carvings. In some cases I am only able to show two figures. As these were bought separately, and at different times, I am not listing them as "pairs and have not placed them in Appendix 1.


1.The Carver of the Parallel Scarifications.

The Carver of the Parallel Scarifications 1


Both figures share a number of similar (if not identical) characteristics. Both heads share a common shape, one that has eyes, ears, nose and mouth cut into the face. Each figure also displays a pair of scarification marks, one on each cheek. In both figures the head is set on a rounded neck which is slightly larger at the base. The shoulders are square and the arms, which hang parallel to each other, are short. The arms bear similar cuts to the inside of the elbows. There are two parallel horizontal lines cut across each chest and two similar, though shorter, lines cut around the navel. The bodies, from the armpits to the feet, are roughly triangular in shape and the legs and feet share a common shape. In short, there is no reason to believe that these two figures were carved by the same person. The following illustration shows the second figure above, together with three other figurative carvings. I am unable to


The Carver of the Parallel Scarifications 3


say why one figure (second from the right) has a hole through its stomach area. The European dealer who sold it to me believed that it was to hold "fetish material", though I am unsure if this is correct. (Ht. 14.8 cms, 18.1 cms, 18.7 cms & 16.4 cms)


2. The Carver of the Wedge-Shaped Head.


 The Carver of the Wedge-Shaped Head. 1


Another easily recognisable carver’s work can be recognised by the distinctive shape of the head.Here the head is wedge-shaped and projects forwards so that it is at a right angle to the figure’s shoulders. Both the nose and mouth are formed by cuts into the front edge of the wedge and the eyes are simply cut into either side of the wedge. Both the top of the head and the base of the jaw are flat and roughly parallel to each other. Many of these carvings are covered in traces of white kaolin. (Ht. 18 cms to 22 cms)


The Carver of the Wedge-Shaped Head 3


This carver has been provisionally named as The Carver of the Wedge-Shaped Head.


3. The Carver of the Pencilled Eyes.


Although I have seen several examples of figures carved by both The Carver of the Parallel Scarifications and The Carver of the Wedge-Shaped Head, I have only seen two, almost identical, carvings by a carver provisionally named as The Carver of the Pencilled Eyes, so called because the figure’s eyes have been simply drawn with a pencil. (Ht. 13 cms & 13.6 cms


The Carver of the Pencilled Eyes.


4. The Carver of the Triangular Body


As suggested by their name, these figures are characterised by having a triangular body shape. The face is also distinct in that it is flat with a protruding tubular nose. There are facial markings, in the form of a St Andrew’s cross, which run out from the nasal area. All the pieces that I have seen appear to have some age to them. (Ht. 19 cms, 16.8 cms, 17.3 cms & 19 cms)


The Carver of triangular body


5. The Carver of the Elongated Body.


These figures, almost all of whom are female, have small faces with square, indented eyes. The arms are either missing, or else extremely short. Some figures show traces of paint. (Ht. 17.3 cms to 21.7 cms)


The Carver of the elongated body


6. The carver of the Angled Leg


Similar in style to the Carver of the Elongated Body (above), except that these figures only have one eye and one leg, the legs having a distinctive angular bend which follows the plane of the body. The figures at the side of the group below have, at one time, been painted. (Ht. 19.3 cms, 18.5 cms, 18.5 cms & 18.9 cms)


 The Carver of the Angled Leg


7. The Carver of the Partially Flattened Face


I have only seen two of these figures, which are characterised by an unnatural flattened area between the nose and the mouth. (Ht. 16.3 cms & 19.7 cms)..


The Carver of the Partially Flattened Face


8. The Carver of the Helmet Heads.


There are two distinctive features to these carvings. Firstly the head appears to be covered by a helmet. I stress the word "appears" because I think that this has to do more with the style of carving, rather than there being a deliberate "helmet" being carved here. And, secondly,.


The Carver of the Helmet heads


in both cases shown above the ends of the arms are cut off at similar angles. Both figures show heavy traces of libations having been poured over them. (Ht. 17.2 cms & 15 cms)


9 . The Carver of the Long Neck.


Three of the figures shown above are water-carriers. Although the fourth figure is not carrying anything on her head she is clearly related to the others because of her long neck and the shape of her face (an inverted triangle).


The Carver of the lonf neck


10. The Carver of the Elongated leg.


Although these two figures might appear to have been carved as a pair, they were purchased separately. Both figures are missing their right arms and right legs. (Ht. 22.5 cms & 22.6 cms).


The Carver of the Elongated leg


11. The Carver of the Round Face.


These small figures have flat, round faces. The three on the left show traces of kaolin, the two on the right do not. (Ht. 20.1 cms, 18.3 cms, 21 cms, 18.4 cms & 20.7 cms)


The Carver of the Rounded face


12. The Carver of the Diamond-Shaped Head.


There are a number of features which distinguish this carver. Firstly, the diamond shape of the head. Secondly, the manner in which the outsides of the arms are carved with a concave curve. This is especially obvious in the central figure and the figure on the right above. And, thirdly, the way that the feet project outwards at the side of the legs. (Ht. 20.2 cms, 23.8 cms & 21 cms)


The Carver of the Diamond-Shaped Head


13. The Carver of the Rounded Shoulders.


This pair, bought separately, are similar in shape, though not in size. (Ht. 24.1 cms & 21 cms)


The Carver of the Rounded Shoulders.


14. The Carver of the Abstract Forms


I have seen a number of carvings bearing this shape. Many of these were carved by different hands, though the shape is always roughly the same. I suspect that they may not represent humans, though this is a guess. There are a number of modern copies of this type of figure which are currently being offered for sale. As the two figures shown above were purchased roughly at the same time and, as they bear similar blue decorations, I would suggest that they have been carved by the same person. (Ht. 24 cms & 20 cms)


The Carver of the Abstract Forms


15. The Carver of the Rounded Shrine Figures.


These two figures (I have seen a third by the same carver) are distinguished by their rounded, smooth surfaces, which are probably the product of repeated washing. (Ht. 32 cms & 31.8 cms)


The Carver of the Rounded Shrine Figures.


16. The Carver of the Open Shoulders.


I have named this carver after the figure shown on the left. The figures have very distinctive flattened shoulders, with a flat area behind the neck. The back then projects downwards from this area, at an angle. The stomach area is exaggerated. Traces of white kaolin can be seen covering half of the body (from top to bottom), while the other half is covered in a red powder. (Ht. 28 cms & 28.1 cms)


The Carver of the Open Shoulders.


17. The Carver of the Thin Arms.


Although different in size, these two figures show a number of similar characteristics. The large, rounded head is carried on an elongated, round neck, which is roughly the same size as the lower body. The thin arms hang downwards parallel to the legs/leg. There is a notch carved to indicate each wrist. Toes are cut with simple notches. (Ht. 26.5 cms & 31.5 cms)


The Carver of the the Thin Arms.


Appendix 1 - Pairs


Over the years I have come across a small number of carvings that were clearly intended to be used as pairs. So far I have seen five such pairs and each pair has been carved differently. This may be because the pairs were carved by different people, or because they were carved with a different use in mind. I would think that these are not "twin figures" in the sense of Yoruba ibejis, where the spirit of a young child resides,although I suppose that they could represent twin ancestors. The first pair are partly clothed and show the remains of libations that had been poured over them.


Adan pairs


The second pair are carved almost as silhouettes and are covered with white kaolin - a powder that the Adan use on many of their carvings.


Adan pairs 2


The third pair are extremely abstract in form and appear to be water-carriers. [4] Like the above pair, they are carved from flat pieces of wood.


Adan pairs 3


The next pair, also carved from flat pieces of wood, depict persons with only half a head and with missing limbs.[5]


Adan pairs 4


The final pair, probably recently carved, are partly covered in kaolin and are tied at the neck with a (modern?) piece of string. The objects carved on top of the heads are new to me and I cannot say exactly what they represent.


Adan pairs 5





I could not have written this piece without the help of Owen Hargreaves and Jasmine Dahl of London, and Pete Dewhirst of Swindon, Wiltshire and Andalucía, Spain, who photographed most of the pieces for me. Other examples of Pete's work can be seen at


  • 1. Kunstepedia article "Strange but Somehow Beautiful" Art of the Adan People of south-east Ghana by Michael Yates.
  • 2. Adr. G. Claerhout Afrikaanse kunst 1971. Plate 43.
  • 3. A black and white illustration of this piece, in A History of Art in Africa by Visona, Poynor, Cole, Harris & Blier. London, 2000, page 227, shows the heads more clearly. This version of the assemblage only contains 23 pieces. A note attached to this assemblage reads, "In this work the artist alludes to otherworldly ancestor figures in rough schematic forms, with enlarged heads. He picks details out with polychrome tempera. The (usually) enlarged eyes seem to refer to the ancestors' ability to look into (and affect) life here on earth."
  • 4. See the Kunstpedia article mentioned above for illustrations of Adan "water-carriers".
  • 5. See the Kunstpedia article mentioned above for illustrations of other Adan figures with missing limbs. I mentioned that Suzanne Preston Blier called these figures aziza, which she described as "miniature forest dwellers (who) are believed to control the hunt and all that pertains to the forest". Blier added that some people described them as "small, humanlike forms with a single leg and a long white hair". I have subsequently come across a description of the Brazilian Saci, a "one legged, pipe smoking gnome with a red cap" who is "closely linked to the earth". Are there other small one-legged figures scattered about the earth, I wonder? And, if so, are we seeing some form of Jungian synchronicity here? Or, was aziza taken to Brazil by slaves, where he developed into Saci via the Brazilian Candomblé religion?