Ahead of Ghana Independence Day, Document premieres a short film about Baba Issaka, custodian of the Fante Asafo flags

A flag surpasses a single piece of cloth, especially among the Ghanaian Fante people—to whom the vibrant Asafo flag airs proactive military valor, magnificent meanings, and values dear to the indigenes.

The Fantes were predominantly traders and buyers of clothes imported from the Europeans in the 17th century, and formed a military group after realizing their lack of a standing army. They called the group Asafo; an amalgam of “Sa” and “fo,” which means war and people respectively in Fante.

The Asafo companies, made up of young men from the Fante villages and led by the Asafo chief otherwise known as the “Supi,” started protecting the villages against local rivalries among others. Later, under European influence during the colonial era, the Asafo companies started adopting European-inspired practices and paraphernalia including flags.

This led to the birth of the Asafo flags (frankaa); a local interpretation of the European flags initially featuring drawn and painted raffia clothes and, later, appliqué trade clothes with fringed edges. The flags were traditionally made by men from special families, and used to carry the British Union Jack until Ghana gained independence in 1957. This led to a new wave of flags embodying the soul of the Asafo companies through color, symbols, proverbs, and emblems mirrored on the reverse side of the flag.

For special occasions, like the installation of a new Supi, the vibrant Asafo frankaa is put on full display high in the air; an image of power reminding the people of their values and culture as a group, and depicting a confrontational proverb to threaten other rival companies.

Today, the art of making Asafo flags is presented with a challenge, as the custodians of this craft are elderly. Who will carry on the tradition of these remarkable artworks which have influenced and inspired many artists around the world?

“Nowadays the youth do not want to learn traditional skills,” says master flag-maker Baba Issaka in this new documentary, Rich Past: Baba Issaka the Asafo Flag Maker, directed by Curtis Essel and produced by Barbara Eyeson of Fante Asafo Flags. “My father taught me this trade when I was 10 years old and this has been my livelihood ever since. I had an apprentice for two weeks who wanted to learn the skill of flag-making, he gave up after two weeks.”

In celebration of Ghana Independence, we highlight some of these Asafo flag-makers from Ghana’s Cape Coast.

Videography by Curtis Essel. Photography by David Nana Opoku Ansah. Photo Assistant: Sharifah Issaka. Creative Direction: Barbara Eyeson & Curtis Essel. Produced by Barbara Eyeson. Scored by David Ansah. Translator: Ato Ewusi.