Indigenous West African Portal With Grassland Landscape

Kathy Hull, designer

This portal is adapted from an early 20th century Ashanti fetish house located in Ghana on the western coast of Africa. The Ashanti are one of approximately 60 ethnic groups calling Ghana home. Of the 18 million people of Ghana, 35% are Christian and 27% are Muslims. Over a third of the population practice traditional, indigenous religions and commonly believe in a Supreme Being, the afterlife and a nearness of ancestors (

The fetish house is a site of celebration, worship and healing. It also serves as a home for the honored deity of the village and is constructed in the same manner as domestic structures. Homes are designed with four adjoining buildings arranged around a central courtyard. In the fetish house, each of the four buildings has a designated purpose. Singers occupy one wing, and drummers another, the third is a kitchen where ceremonial meals are prepared and the fourth contains the shrine of the deity.

The walls are constructed of wood and cane relief covered in local white and red clay. The decoration over the entrance is molded in the "dwarf's stool" pattern. To the right of the doorway is a pattern called "the snake that climbs the raffia palm". Scroll panels decorate the left and the lower portions of the portal. Doorways are a particular providence of the intermediary spirit.

The function of the intermediary spirit is to mediate between humans living in the mundane world and inhabitants of the world of spirit, including the beloved ancestors, and spirits of natural forces and deities. The fetish hanging in the doorway is an offering to the intermediary spirit, named Exu in Candoblé, an Afro-Atlantic traditional religion originating in the slave communities of Brazil. This fetish is composed of items pleasing to Exu; red and black beads, white rooster feathers, mint, and cowrie shells. In the lower right hand corner of the entrance to the portal, one can find the abstract human form of an akuba, a fertility doll. Akuamma (plural form of akuba), are given to women who wish to have many healthy children (Swithenbank, 10, 14-15, 17, 20-21). The artist has placed behind the akuba an image of an Ancistrocladus korupensis, a rare forest plant that has medicinal value in the treatment of AIDS.

The landscape is on the edge of a lush rainforest and a savannah or grassland. Ghana's rainforest has dwindled in the past 100 years due to the lumber industry and increased need for agricultural land. A number of organizations are now working to conserve the rainforest and its inhabitants by setting up reserves (Simon, 23). Palm and baobab trees grow in the rainforest. The long-living baobab tree has a huge trunk and is known as the "tree of life" because it is a source of food, water and fibers for baskets and rope (Moore, 189). The oldest baobob tree is believed to be 3000 years old. The largest living specimen today is 45 feet in diameter (Lewington, 124-5).

One fourth of the world's landmass is composed of grasslands. Acacia trees are seen with the African elephant in the distant savanna. Other endangered animals portrayed include the lowland gorilla and collared mangabey seen on the left. Beneath an aloe vera plant is a white-necked picathartes, an unusual bird that normally nests in caves. Hunters have often killed this bird to sell it as a specimen for collectors. On the right side of the painting, a male African lion sits with the meal for the day -- a rare Mohorr Dama gazelle-which he has stolen from an African leopard and her cub.