Patrique deGraft-Yankson

Vincent Akwete Kofi, Crucifix, 45x10x19 inches, wood

Re-imaging Christian Religious Sculptural icons in the Ghanaian Context

One of the reasons Christianity thrived in Ghana (and Africa) was largely because, the traditional Ghanaian observed so much conformity between their traditional religious practices and the introduced Euro-Christian religion. Commonalities included the belief in reaching the Almighty God through the Saints which the traditional Ghanaian perceived as the Christian’s version of reaching the Supreme Being through the Ancestors. Another important point of agreement between the two religions was the use of visual representations that gave forms to the unseen and crystalized beliefs and spiritual perceptions. In both ways, these came in the forms of images/arts which visualized and personified beliefs through intense iconographic presentations.


However, instead of these semblances and similarities forming a basis for a conglomeration of idiosyncrasies and belief systems, the colonial masters and early missionaries succeeded in presenting the new religion and associated practices supreme over that of the traditional Ghanaian. Whereas the images (statues) of Saints were considered as sacred objects on the alter, objects representing the ancestors were, without any known reasons, demonized and derogatorily described as idols/fetish/satanic, etc. The direct consequence of this was the ‘production’ of a heavily colonized traditional Ghanaian with a split religious stance and weak spiritual personality, a phenomenon which has served neither the indigenous nor the Euro-Christian religious system any good up to today.


Today, scholarly investigations and practical experiences with African and Ghanaian art forms have eroded most of the misconceptions and brought out their beauty through genuine efforts towards their truest interpretation.

  • Patrique deGraft-Yankson
    Patrique deGraft-Yankson


    Fortunately, contemporary Ghanaian artists like Vincent Akwete Kofi and Kofi Antobam, who by their training, developed both the skills and the mindset to create and fully appreciate African arts have played major interventional roles. They, through rigorous production of masterpieces over the years, led the move to redirect the wavelength of Ghanaian artistic expressiveness along the paths of decolonization. A typical example of these arts is the Crucifix, the selected object for this discussion.


    The Artist – Vincent Akwete Kofi

    The Crucifix is a sculpture in the round, measuring 45x10x19 inches, and was created by Vincent Akwete Kofi, a Ghanaian artist who lived between 1923 and 1974. Characteristically, Vincent creates outstanding sculptures in humanistic forms. His sculptures speak to traditional African philosophies, ideals and beliefs (Grobel, 1970), and he through his works, seeks to reinforce the beauty, dynamism and complexities of African art. Indeed, Vincent’s artistic posture was largely informed by his training in the then Achimota College in the Gold Coast (now Ghana), an educational institution which sought to bridge the gap between European and African forms of knowledge (Woets, 2014).


    Description and interpretation

    The Crucifix was carved in tropical hard wood, one of Vincent Kofi’s preferred media, with the style and subject matter reminiscing his belief in the creative and objective fusion of lessons from the history of modernism in the arts by an immersion in his Ghanaian heritage. Like his earlier sculptures therefore, the choice of this Euro-Christian theme throws lights on his Pan-Africanism and decolonization intents. 


    The sculpture is a depiction of a free-standing human figure with features that conform with his earlier wood carvings, such as depiction of enlarged head and heavy feet which are more representational than naturalistic. Again, the entire form is seen as being directed by the limitations of the tree trunk deliberately chosen for the work. This, of course is one of Kofi’s traditional wood carving styling.


    The Crucifix is postured in a clasped forward-bent lower limb. Like the lower limbs, the upper limbs of the figure which are raised over the head and stretched backwards, are also clasped together, depicting the entire image in a rather discomforting posture. Further strengthening the feeling of distress and discomfort in the image is the dropped and lifeless face and facial features of the image. The long thick beard of the image with the tightly fitting cylindrical hat on the head, carved after one of those won by royals among some sections of Ghanaians, give the figure an elderly look.


    Other significant features of the image are the exaggerated clasped, forward-bent and wobbly elephantine feet, dropped face with shuttered eyes, flaccid body/skin/muscles (which is visible even in wood), and the heavy beard.


    In trying to understand the presentation of the Crucifix, it is important to note that Ghanaians have stories about characters who lived and suffered similar fates as that of the Christ. The Fante people (a section of the Akan ethnic group), for example have records on a man called Ahor, who offered himself as a sacrifice to the gods, when the life of a human being was demanded as an antidote to a calamity which befell the people. Up to today, Ahor is celebrated in a festival called Ahorbaa to commemorate his brave and sacrificial feat. Other ethnic groups in Ghana have similar stories which render the Passion of the Christ not just a familiar phenomenon, but a lived experience recorded in the history of the people.


    Also worthy of notice is the familiarity of the various themes which characterize the story of the Christ, such as his kingship, miraculous personality, sacrificial journey and his eventual torture and death. The Crucifix therefore, was Vincent Kofi attempt at depicting the passion of the Christ in a way that would make it familiar and relevant to the people.


    The image in Kofi’s Crucifix was therefore needed to be presented as a man with royal personality, as depicted in the cylindrically shaped cap, which is symbolic of some of the Ghanaian royal millinery that depict kingship and authority. This is reinforced by a heavy beard to portray wisdom. Wisdom which is reserved for kings and aged people.


    Analysing from the experiences of a people whose history was not devoid of unpleasant experiences, such as enslavement, brutal torture and execution, the image presented in the Euro-Christian Crucifix could not have been a complete representation of the Man of Sorrow described in the Christian holy book (Isaiah 53:3). Kofi therefore saw the need to present a figure which paints a real picture of a man who had gone through an extreme physical pain. Those strong and heavy, yet wobbly feet were a symbol of a man overburdened with sorrows and sins of the world.


    Indeed, the man on the Crucifix was dead, with no chance of maintaining a smooth and shiny skin as seen in the Euro-Christian crucifix. In Vincent Kofi’s Crucifix, therefore, he, even in wood, managed to present a flaccid body/skin and muscles which, with the closed eyelids, dropped and lifeless face gave an impression of an extremely tired dead body. Probably an artistic rendition that comes close is Mel Gibson’s crucified Christ in his movie, the Passion of the Christ.



    Early missionaries introduced the Christian religion with its attendant icons, images, stories and language in 1400s. Semblance in religious icons, images, stories and their associated functions made the acceptance of Christianity easier among indigenous Africans/Ghanaians. Vincent Kofi’s Crucifix could therefore be considered as a great effort towards connecting foreign Christian belief systems to known religious experiences, thereby making Christianity much more relevant to the African than it has been.



    • African Artists in America (1978). African Affairs, 11 (3), 84-85.
    • Frank, B. (1999). The Visual Arts of Africa: Gender, Power, and Life Cycle Rituals by Judith Perani and Fred T. Smith (A review).  African Affairs, 11 (3), 14-16.
    • Moore, G. (1967). The Arts in the New Africa African Affairs, 66 (263), 140-148.