Symbolism and an African Education

How do we as a people connect to our roots, our history, when it’s been demonized and cast aside in favor of neo-colonialist institutions and a certain “pressing forward”, preached in all the arts and sciences, social media timelines, and newspaper columns?
Art & Design
April 23, 2024
Written By
Ifeoluwa Olutayo
In this Article

“I just want people to pay attention to what we were, because it informs what we are.”

The question of an African identity outside of colonial bestowment has plagued the scholars and expressionists of the African persuasion. How do we as a people connect to our roots, our history, when it’s been demonized and cast aside in favour of neo-colonialist institutions and a certain “pressing forward”, preached in all the arts and sciences, social media timelines and newspaper columns?

Faith believes that as an artist, she has a responsibility to create with a singular purpose, and with what she had on display at the +234 Art fair, that purpose was an education and a hidden communion.

With the works before me, I peered at the intricate symbols, fascinated by their use, by their appearance, looking like something out of a science fiction novel or a Hays-code adventure map.

That’s not what she intended when creating this masterful combination of culture, but it serves the same purposes as a map, a tool to find pieces of West African culture and a prompt to educate ourselves on what they represent and their significance in the grand scheme of the reclamation of our history.

Faith Omole, the Artist

When I asked about the symbols, she said they were called Adinkra, every single one populating the canvas representing concepts or symbols.

Adinkra finds its origins in Ghana, specifically the Bono people of Gyaman and they were originally used on pottery, stools and likes. The Gyaman king, Nana Kwadwo Agyemang Adinkra popularised the wearing of Adinkra cloth, with the usage spreading to other Akan Kingdoms as time passed.

As Faith said, they are decorative symbols, representing and encapsulating messages, proverbs and pearls of wisdom of the time.

The symbols are an oral history of these West African tribes and they were a means of passing down the complexities and traditions of life on that frontier. For example, you have the Adinkrahene, which is called the Chief of the Adinkra symbols, symbolizing charisma, greatness and leadership or the Sankofa, which means “return and get it.”, an invitation to learn from the past.



You can find a couple of the symbols here if you’d like to start a journey down this use of art to communicate ideals and history.

With Faith’s work, she doesn’t stop there. She believes in not only showcasing the histories to educate us on times past but also using the old to communicate new ideas and new conceptions.

With the three works on show, she manages to infuse symbols that are diverse in meaning with communion, growth and family.

I Got You

I stepped back a bit to examine the work titled; I Got You, and in it, I found outlines of two children in an embrace, safety and reassurance present in the merging of two bodies. The technicality involved in creating this is something to astonish, but she embodies a tenet, that of self-discovery.

I watched as people came and went, amazed and wearing looks of satisfaction having discovered the hidden figures beneath. That is an invitation to learn and discover and it’s a gift that she believes in laying at the feet of all those who gaze at the canvas she has adorned in a green-and-blue marriage of wonder. The search makes it worth it and I honestly welcome her approach to art as one that enriches not only the audience but herself.

As she finds inspiration and knowledge of the past in one tribe, 12th the Creator finds expression through another, Trybe Art.

It’s a tribe of his own creation though, a platform to express all that he is and wants to be. Heavily inspired by Benin Art, he infuses symbols with purpose and missions, to guide, protect, and explain the chaotic landscape of his mind, the mind that produces the art we look at, before he says to me, “Everything is my Canvas.”

You see, this statement is not made lightly, with the cowries that adorn his hair finding a place in the work before us, and the shirt that he has on, sporting some of the symbols I can see nestled in the art, giving it meaning, a map of sorts to navigate the chaotic landscape.

He’s always been big on Africanism, drawing from our leaning into representation to adorn every surface made available to him with the gleaned symbols.

With the first of his works, Why Am I Here; A Statement of Purpose, he questions the approach to life he’s been given as a successful template, never satisfied to sit in a box. He lives to be asked questions about what he does, because he views it as a chance to educate, just as Faith has set out to do.

His character droops his head, filled with wonder at the world he finds, and like a child with clay, what he can mould with the tools he acquires from it.

12th_the Creator

With the Hand of God series, he represents the cycle of life, the hand an ever-evolving clock with various symbols charting out our journey and designation.

“These are what I call Trybe Heads, they are guides through the chaos,” he offers when I ask about the recurring faces that I find in the work before us.

To him, just as Virgil led Dante through the inferno, these faces guide him in the process and eventually, they serve to guide the audience. The cowries that litter his hair as they do his art symbolize wealth and the waves in and around the canvas symbolize continuity or movement, something he has always explored and something I will find in his quasi-triptych expression.

Hand of God 3 – End

“I’ve been doing symbolism before I knew what it really was,” he says.

I am drawn into his world, studying his language, trying to decipher the art as he has put it down. Crowns, I find, represent royalty, eyes are of course for sight or enlightenment and the spirals evoke an understanding of creation and all that it stands for.

Both these artists offer up an invitation to learn about the world and ourselves, through intricate technical work and symbols beholden to African history and the chaotic landscape that is our minds.

We read, explore, and paint not just to do them but to find ourselves in them, immortalized as the hand of God goes from beginning to end, a clock ticking despite our reservations about the effort it takes to exist and do these things.

These two are embracing that very damnation to a confined time and expressing all that they learn along the way, immortalizing themselves at instants, with room to grow and create as the clock inevitably ticks towards zero.

Hand of God 2 – Progress

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