Friday, September 12, 2008


The last king of the Ashanti empire, Assantehene Agyeman Prempeh, was surrounded by victorious British troops clamoring for him to come out of his palace and surrender. The gods had abandoned Prempeh and all hope was gone. But before he went out to face his conquerors, he commissioned one last work of art.

Colonel Baden-Powell described the surrender in his memoir of the African military campaign. When Prempeh emerged, the soldiers commanded the defeated king to grovel before them:

It was a blow to the Ashanti pride and prestige such as they had never suffered before. Then came the demand for payment of the indemnity for the war.... The king could produce about a twentieth part of what had been promised. Accordingly, he was informed that he, together with his mother and chiefs, would now be held as prisoners, and deported to the Gold Coast.
Prempeh was marched off to jail. Behind him, soldiers plundered his palace and burned down the sacred Burial-Place of the Kings of Ashanti.

In those last days before Prempeh surrendered, he ordered his royal artists to prepare a glorious tunic for him to wear at the surrender ceremony. They worked long and hard to make a "regal robe of mourning" approximately 7 feet by 10 feet, covered with graphic symbols illustrating the culture and history of his people.

The cloak was organized in a series of squares, with ideograms depicting the legends, proverbs and histories of the Ashanti.

For example, the following design symbolizes the king encircled and protected by ancestors, warriors, and helpful spirits who support his reign:

This next symbol, called "hen's feet," relates to the Ashanti saying that "a hen treads upon its chicks but does not kill them," meaning that the powerful king stands on his people in a gentle, protective way.

Another symbol, the ram's horn, depicts strength but also corresponds to the proverb, "when a ram is brave, its courage comes from its heart and not its horns."

The soldiers were clueless about the meaning of these symbols or the significance of the cloak. However, one of them took a fancy to it and "obtained possession" of it. The king watched through jail bars as his conquerors walked away with the legacy of his people.

What in the world was Prempeh thinking? The beauty of his cloak couldn't protect his people. Why did he go through the trouble of creating art whose message wouldn't be understood? And why put one more precious thing in the hands of his enemies to steal or destroy?

One obvious answer is that people sometimes reach out to art when they have nothing else left. In moments of ineffable sorrow, when our five senses can't piece together the world in a way that is bearable, art sometimes helps us bridge the gap. This kind of art might fortify Prempeh even if his enemies didn't understand its meaning.

But I suspect there was even more involved. Friedrich Schlegel once wrote,
Through all the noise of life's multi-coloured dream,
One song sings to the secret listener.
It seems to me that a lot of art is created like a message in a bottle. We hope it will someday find its way to a secret listener who understands us. The Ashanti empire, with its rich cultural tradition, would end when Prempeh surrendered that day. It was quite possible that Prempeh's cloak would be carelessly destroyed by infidels. But if the cloak survived, there was a chance it might someday come to the attention of some secret listener, and they would know the Ashanti for what they were, and maybe even take pity for something that once was, but is no more.

Every day you and I walk unknowingly on multiple layers of such sadness-- desperate songs from previous generations of singers who never found a listener. But in Prempeh's case, his gamble paid off. After many years, his cloak was discovered and rescued. Now it is in the inventory of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington.


Diego Fernetti said...

Terrific post! Always a pleasure to read you blog.

Anonymous said...

the symbols at end of your post remaind me some maori tatoos.
So i'm waiting for a maori art post

Preston said...

Wonderful post. Such a great story and analysis. I am really enjoying reading your blog.

Anonymous said...

Thank you David. Absolutely wonderful post. Your blog has been a joy to read since its infancy. All the best!


David Apatoff said...

dfernetti, it's always a pleasure to read your comments. You've added a lot of insight along the way.

all black, I was not familiar with maori tatoos, but I just had fun looking at some of them. Thanks!

Preston and Nick, thank you so much for such kind remarks. It really matters to me that there are people out there who respond to such stories the way I do.

Anonymous said...


I think you've really hit a high water mark with this last post. Thoroughly enjoyed it.


neil said...

Brilliant post.

Thanks for once again sharing your insight into some of the more ethereal elements of life/art that so many experience but can't find a way to articulate

Well done.

Anonymous said...

Great post...
imperialism-the root of the worlds problems,
your blog is insightful, educational and challenging,

David Apatoff said...

Thanks Kev and Neil, you are too kind.

Vito, perhaps you have put your finger on it-- people may like this post because they are anti-imperialist. My personal interest is these wonderful symbols and patterns that this dying culture left behind. Aren't they beautiful?

Anonymous said...

I liked the post because it was insightful and showed me something new that confirmed what I have always held to believe, that shape is the common language of mankind. And that every human imagination is full of treasure, if only it were accessed.

And I like your blog because it is human, not political. And the same goes for the art you seem to like, which just so happens to be the exact same art I like.

If we can't find a little oasis of quality craftsmanship, common ground, beauty, meaning, fun, appreciation, and simplicity in this world, then the political "operatives" who spend every day trying to plant their ill seeds in the newsmedia and thus our minds, have won.

I don't want them to win. I want us to win.

I'm more worried about mental imperialism. The world's problems began long before boats were invented.

Princess :) said...

I am not good in words but i surely wanted to thank you thank you so so much for having such wonderful blog that gives so much priceless insight to me and others.

May God bless you for being so nice :D

David Apatoff said...

Kev, you speak wisdom (as usual) and you are exactly right, I do often come to these posts as little "oases" where we can explore issues of simplicity and purity and beauty together.

PS-- I always thought you had an excellent eye for art but maybe you're right, maybe we happen to share the same taste!

David Apatoff said...

Princess, you are very sweet.

Anonymous said...

The way you see and feel these works really touched me.
I love your blog and all the beauty you share with us.
Thank you!

Anonymous said...

i happened to stumble upon your blog. something captured my attention (maybe the graphic black and white symbols), so i began reading back posts.

i became completely engrossed in the tragic love/art affair between camille and rodin ....

thank you for reminding me that there is always more to an image than meets the eye (or don't judge a book by its cover ??)

i've truly enjoyed my brief sojourn here. i hope to find you again !


Rubens said...

Beautiful words, David. Great writing.

Vanderwolff said...

Your site is a recent addition to my dwindling list of blogs worth noting. What I have just read accomplishes what that Ashanti story-tunic sought to invoke: an encapsulation of history, silent codes of beauty, and the reassurance that someone, somewhere, is on the same intangible frequency. Thank you, David; your posts are poetry.

Cognitive and Developmental Group at UK said...

The cloak is not only art, it is also language. An Ashanti might have been able to "read" it almost effortlessly, if the symbols were pictographs for concepts.

But the pictographs transcend symbolism: They also exploit various forms of symmetry to create beauty.

I am astounded by your message. Thank you for translating.

David Apatoff said...

Wow... I'm not sure how to respond to those of you who had such kind reactions to the story of the Ashanti. I'm afraid I'm not very good at finding words to reply to comments such as these, but I am genuinely touched (and more than a little surprised).

Jack Ruttan said...

It was cool. These stories of different cultures interacting artistically usually don't have happy endings. Not that this one did. But I admire the people who give understanding a different world a try.

Anonymous said...

This is a beautiful post, thoughtful and (I think) true. Thanks!

David Apatoff said...

vhs, thanks especially for your use of the word "true." I cherish this little blog as a place where I can get try to get as close to truth as my limited sight, brainpower and sense of smell can take me.

tim said...

This is a gem of an essay. There's a way in which all art is Prempeh's cloak.

Tim Kreider

David Apatoff said...

Timothy, thanks for understanding.

Anonymous said...

I'm just curious of the fate of the cloak... very nice reading

Anonymous said...

I have an authentic goldweight ring with the symbols of the "three lines" going horizontailly as in the image on the cloak - on the right hand side in the middle row. could you please tell me what this possibly means.

Thanks for the fantastic read!

jeanne said...

very beautiful. art history, compassion, love of detail: learn how to look, and you will see.