Glasgow and Ghana-based Tribal Art and Textiles dealer, Ian Shaw, tells Camilla Frances the story of two extraordinary objects: his greatest find and the piece he’ll keep forever.



Rare Ewe Kente textile © Ian Shaw   


My Greatest Find: Rare 19th-century Ewe Kente textile

I’ve been travelling in West Africa for more than 25 years, and in that time I've built relationships and connections that have proved essential to finding rare works of art and textiles. It was 2008 and I was travelling alone in Accra, Ghana, during the rainy season, staying in a local guest house. The streets were flooded, but eventually my contact arrived after travelling 20 hours on local transport from the Volta region.

He arrived around 10pm with a very rare 19th-century Ewe Kente Textile to show me. It was brought to me by the original family owners, as would always be the case with a Kente piece of this quality and age. I was so pleased my contact’s journey was worth it; the payment would finish building his house and pay school fees for one year. We have since become good friends, as well as business associates.

Kente cloth is woven by the Ashante and Ewe people of Ghana, originally by weavers in the town of Bonwire. It's hand-woven on four-inch strip looms and the strips are sewn together in panels of up to 23, depending on the status of the owner.

Ashante Kente are woven in bold dynamic colors – blues, gold and reds – while Ewe Kente is woven in subtle, earthy colours. There are many floating motifs sewn into the panels of this textile, like ‘the hand of friendship' Guinea Fowl, which indicates the owner’s high-ranking status.

The diversity of Ewe weaving is glorious: each piece tells a multitude of stories, from the natural dyes used and the ritual weaving process, to the hand-sewn motifs and the ritual of wearing the piece. This textile demonstrate decades of use; its re-stitched seams and general wear indicate it was – and still is – a much loved piece.


The piece I’ll keep forever: Carved figure by Osei Bonsu

This majestic, seated figure was carved by the master carver, Osei Bonsu. Born in 1900 in the Ashante heartland town of Kumasi in Ghana, Bonsu is without question the most important Ashante carver of the 20th century. He carved for the courts of three Asantehene (the paramount chief of the Asante) - an honor that has never been equalled. His father, Kwaku Bempah, was also a skilled carver and trained Bonsu in his own workshop from the age of 10. It soon drew praise.


Carved wooden figure by Osei Bonsu © Ian Shaw 


In 1924, Bempah travelled to England for the British Empire Exhibition, where several of his works were on display, while his son remained at home working on important commissions. Many of Bonsu’s best carvings date from this period, until around 1940.

The naturalistic style of his carving became highly desired, and he carved many objects, such as Royal figures painted in gold and females with elegant and elaborate coiffures. He also carved many ritualistic objects, such as linguist sticks and sword hilts. 

Bonsu’s figurative work remains some of the finest, most regal carving ever created in Ghana, like this piece with its domed forehead and naturalistic features. I believe the figure dates from the late 1930s and depicts a very highly regarded chief with his fingers pointing into his chest as if to say, ‘I wield the power’.


Carved wooden figure by Osei Bonsu © Ian Shaw 


This is by far the most impressive and rare Ashante carving I have ever had the good fortune to own; the piece is completely intact with no cracks or even local repairs. It has been revered in its lifetime and will continue to be revered in my own collection. Yes, it is a fine, rare piece of craftsmanship from a master carver of the Ashante, but it will never be sold. My wife, Josephine, was astonished to learn so much of her own culture and heritage from her Obroni (foreigner) husband.

This piece will return to Ghana by the end of this year and will sit in our house in Aburi, an Ashante town where my wife was born. I think this will be a fitting home for my carving from the greatest Ashante carver of the 20th century.

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