Comb (duafe)

Asante peoples
late 19th or early 20th century
more object details

General Description

Artists use great skill and imagination when fashioning African combs in materials such as wood, bone, or ivory. The spines, or handles, are decorated with carved motifs and precious metals, including locally mined gold and imported brass. The earliest extant African combs were found in ancient Egyptian tombs and are thousands of years old. Several combs excavated at Dawu in Ghana date to the 17th century, which also corresponds to the earliest European accounts of African combs. Most wooden combs that have survived tropical climate conditions date from the 19th century.

While both men and women use combs, Asante women's combs are usually the most elaborately decorated. A woman usually acquired sculpted combs as gifts from family, male admirers, or her husband to mark important events such as coming-of-age, getting married, or giving birth. The carved decorations on combs refer to Asante proverbs or other traditional sayings, a few of which can be identified on this comb.

The curved blade and dumbbell-shaped hilt outline on the lowest bar represent a sword. Asante swords are associated with the proverb "No one challenges a lion unarmed," emphasizing preparedness. The stool at the center of the comb may symbolize the Golden Stool. The Golden Stool is the most important religious and political symbol of the Asante nation. According to Asante oral tradition, the Golden Stool descended from the heavens to land gently on the knees of Osei Tutu, the founder and first king of the Asante empire. This stool is the repository of an individual's soul in life and after death. Its significance is embodied in the Asante saying "There are no secrets between a man and his stool."

The two knots at either side relate to the proverb, "If you are weaving and the thread gets tangled, you use both hands to untie it," meaning that even wise men need to seek help. The hairstyle with upright plaits on the female bust in the medallion has been documented on a Fante woman photographed in the early 20th century. The crosses projecting from either side of the comb are Christian symbols. This comb is as carefully detailed on the back as it is on the front.

Adapted from

  • Roslyn A. Walker, Label text, Arts of Africa, 2015.

  • Roslyn A. Walker, The Arts of Africa at the Dallas Museum of Art (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2009), 232-235.