Emmanuel Aklasu
Owusu-Ankomah. Deer Hunt. 1975. Acrylic on wood panel. 104.5 x 141.5cm. Courtesy of Ghana National Museum

Sustainable ‘Aboakyer’ and Cultural Diversity

Owuso-Ankomah (born 1956) painted this picture as a young man at the age of 22. Since then, his artistic work has been concerned with body and identity, origin and future of the human being. While he created this early work with watercolours, he used a traditional picture composition with foreground-middle and background. His later pictures are abstract and symbolic, working mainly with Adinkra symbols.


The two texts below were written in parallel as part of a joint project by Ghanaian and German colleagues in 2023 (Link). This project, which has not yet been finalised, is concerned with the question of whether there can be a common textbook in Ghana and Germany. The painting by Owusu-Ankomah was suggested by the Ghanaian colleagues as a way of thematising the topic of sustainability in the classroom.


An interpretation of a later work by the artist from 2009, "Moving Symbol", can be found under the following link.

  • Emmanuel Aklasu
    Emmanuel Aklasu

    Owusu-Ankomah’s painting at first glance reveals a foreshortening company of energetic warriors, muscular framed with broad shoulders, muscled chest, and a narrow waist in a chiselled physique. The hunters were portrayed with huge hands, clenched fist, knuckles, strong legs visibly revealing biceps brachiis and dabs of varicose veins on the arms, thighs and legs evident of powerful and efficacious men. Before modern society, the average male spent most of their time hunting, protecting, and engaging in physical activities that increased their muscle mass and maximize their muscular proportions. Owusu-Ankomah’s production exhibits masculine competitiveness and a sense of adventure – the brave team were a-fire with passion, armed with sticks in a leopard-like graceful movement as the captain leads carrying a captured antelope shoulder high.


    The warriors are noticeably naked with only a string of grass costume wrapped around the private parts which is the formal and ceremonial attire for the ancient culture. Owusu-Ankomah’s choice of colour in rendering the human figures lends credence to the fact that colours have a strong position in identifying humans while hunting. Wearing hunter orange is the best way to ensure other hunters see you and don’t accidentally mistake you for game in complex backgrounds that are often green or brown. The artwork reveals harmonizing brown colours which tend to create a central focal point in the entire picture frame to evoke earthiness, emotions, security and safety related to the natural world. The tints and shades of hues enhanced the main features in the painting to vividly communicate the intended message as well as create an illusion of depth.


    A thick flora forms the background of the painting evident that the hunting expedition was carried out in a thick forest. As the fearless, able-bodied men advance through shrubs in high spirit of mission accomplished, an earthly scent swirled around them coupled with a sense of eagerness to meet a welcoming, expectant and jubilant community. Hunting is an extremely important mode of human-nature interaction closely linked to culture patterns and value systems. This engagement with wild animals is thought of as part of a deeper unity with nature, which means being part of nature in physical sense (Lowassa et al., 2012). Sustainable hunting prescribes taking as much as needed and as much as the habitat and the population can regenerate. Suffice to say, when hunting for a game form the basis of a year-long survival of a people, it calls for a deeper reflection. Owusu-Ankomah’s painting comes on the back of an ancient heritage of a distinct tribe in Sub-Saharan Africa.


    ‘Aboakyir’ translated ‘deer hunt’ is a festival uniquely celebrated by the Effutu (Simpa) people of Winneba in the Central Region, southern coast of Ghana, West Africa. The festival which is celebrated annually on the first Saturday in May has the historical antecedent of the replacement of a human sacrifice to a tribal god with a leopard – an alternative which resulted in the loss of many more lives than the sacrifice of a single slave. Consultations with the deity for a more humane alternative resulted in the “Wansan” (the deer) as a practicable and most acceptable substitute. The capture of a live deer, like the leopard, required many more hands than the members of the royal family could find. The additional hands required were solicited from the local militia as a service to ‘the stool – a symbol of chieftaincy, royalty, custom and tradition’. It was this change in form; that is, the involvement of the local militia, that the annual consecration and appeasement of the deity became a public, state-wide affair. This marked the birth and hence the origin of the “Aboakyer” festival.


    The design of the Effutu State emblem tells this story; the ‘stool’ on which the King is installed sits on the “Wansan” (the deer).


    gh ea aboakyer

    Emblem of the Effutu state (Source: Palace of Oma Odefe)


    The festival is therefore important for the ‘stool’, its occupant and the entire royal stool family. It is a religious duty and an obligation for the general citizenry to ensure its celebration annually is sustained to honour the ancestors and protect their historic culture for posterity on the back of removing evil and predicting a good harvest for a prosperous life in the coming year. The week-long activity begins with two traditional warrior groups known as the ‘Asafo’ companies consult their shrines for clearance, protection and early catch. The warrior groups clad in distinct costumes with distinct musical instruments — the ‘Tuafo' and ‘Dentsefo’, move to their respective hunting grounds at dawn on Saturday, wielding sticks and clubs amid chanting of war songs. No weapons, other than clubs and sticks are used to catch the deer, as it must be brought back alive.


    By far, the relevance of Owusu-Ankomah’s painting is not in doubt as it fosters a deeper understanding of the historical and societal roles of hunting within Ghanaian communities. The painting holds both cultural and educational significance which sparks discussions on conservation, sustainable practices, and the preservation of cultural heritage. Consequently, bridging the gap between present generations and the rich tapestry of cultural and environmental history. The sight of the painting in Ghana’s National Museum serves as a poignant reflection of the nation’s cultural heritage and connection to nature. In this visual narrative, the core of historical period of a distinct society is unearthed.



    • Lowassa, A., Tadie, D. & Fischer, A. (2012). On the role of women in bushmeat hunting – Insights from Tanzania and Ethiopia. Journal of Rural Studies 28(4):622–630.


    Further Reading

    • Anane-Frimpong, D. (2022). Aboakyir: Deer hunt festival. Link Retrieved on April 10, 2023
    • Rubiano, W. (2017). Planting trees for the aboakyer festival 2017.  Link


    Published March 2024

    Barbara Lutz-Sterzenbach
    Barbara Lutz-Sterzenbach

    An energetic scene. Five men in a flat landscape approach the viewer. Their bodies are naked - except for their loincloths - their faces grim. Muscles in the bright light stand out under the skin, their chests bulge voluminously - they are timeless heroes. The men do not look at the viewer of the picture. With their long, dark sticks firmly in their strong hands, they gather symmetrically around the bald man in the foreground. He presents himself with an antelope in his raised arms. His bald skull points to the left, as does the antelope's head.


    On closer inspection, some things are irritating. Are the men dancing or walking? Where is the animal spatially located? Somehow it is on the shoulder of the man, but the legs are captured by the men behind, who would be much too far away for that. Is an event, an episode (as in a photograph) depicted? Or does the symmetry of the composition speak more of a constructed symbol, a sign, as in an emblem? The latter would support the strict division into horizontal planes: with the islands of grass in the foreground, the flat, ochre-coloured plane in the middle ground and the forest with sky in the background. But then again many design principles undermine this order: the tense, energetic movements of the figures, the strong brushstrokes, the irregular shapes of the white clouds and the tufts of grass, the dynamic accents of the sticks.


    We know from our Ghanaian colleagues that what is depicted here, the catching of the animal, is part of a ritual celebration and a festival (the Aboakyer Festival). Here the moment is shown when the men have stepped out of the dark, hermetically sealed forest in the background with their prey and now present themselves in the bright light with their success. A comparison with the results of an image search on the internet for “Aboakyer festival” (Fig. 2) shows that this is the iconic moment. Here the idea of the festival seems to be condensed. And this also explains the emphasis on muscles: the hunters must be well trained to match the animal's speed and strength.


    gh ea aboakyer search

    Fig. 2 (Google search for "Aboakyer Festival" on 9.9.2023 - the first page of results)


    Owuso-Ankomah's painting focuses on the men with the animal. At first glance, the painting shows above all the strength of the men. The space thus becomes the backdrop for their performance. Their bodies are not only idealised but theatrically exaggerated, their muscles as if illuminated by a spotlight. The geometric centre of the picture, through which the horizon also passes, brings the loincloth of the leader into focus (see fig. 3) - perhaps an allusion to male potency?


    gh ea aboakyer comp

    Fig. 3: Composition sketch (horizon and geometric centre)


    A comparison with photos on the same theme from the Heritage Centre in Winneba (see Fig. 4-6) shows clear differences to the depiction in Owusu-Ankomah's painting. In the artwork, both animal and hunter have their mouths open, exhaustion is evident in both. In this way, too, man, animal and landscape are connected - despite hunting and death. The artist uses the warm ochre tones in such a way that the earth, the human body and the animal hardly differ in colour. Since the animal is still alive, its head does not have to be held. Thus, visually, it seems to elude a depiction of "being trapped", also due to the ambiguous spatiality described above. It could almost just as easily be understood as a triumphant appearance of the animal, to which the men are subordinate as bearers and assistant figures - comparable, for example, to Jan van Eyck's depiction of the lamb (see fig. 7), which also marks a mediating position between victim and victor, between human beings and God.


    gh ea aboakyer heritage center

    Fig. 4-6: Photos from the Heritage Centre Winneba


    gh ea aboakyer eyck

    Fig. 7: Van Eyck, Lamb of God, Ghent Altar


    This image sets against each other contradictory concepts: static-symmetrical-ordered vs. dynamic; accidental situation vs. deliberate staging; documentation vs. sign; hyperrealism in body and space vs. symbolic charge. It sets these contradictions against each other in the unity of the painting.




    Published March 2024