Sankofa is a West African word from the Akan language that means “reach back to get it”. It also refers to a symbol: a bird looking over its back grabbing an egg with its beak. In Charleston, SC, you can find this image on tombstones. One cemetery has the symbol mounted to a wall with a plaque translating Sankofa to mean: “Looking to your past in order to move forward.”
Carline, a woman visiting this historic area, saw the symbol and was instantly hooked. She said that after seeing it she spent weeks looking obsessively for some rendition of the symbol. Finally, she found just what she was looking for on Etsy; A small, wooden Sankofa.
As it turns out, it was hand carved in Ghana by a 65 year old man named Kofi who has spent the better part of his life carving wooden figures to sell abroad to people like Carline. She sat in her living room holding the piece and said she sometimes wondered if Kofi knew how much his work was cherished – the artistry, the meaning of the symbol and, most importantly, the fact that he created it with his own hands.
Hand crafted items have become increasingly popular in recent years, and the people who collect these items have various motives for acquiring them. Beth, a history teacher from Nashville, has a massive chandelier over her ornate dining room table. It had a thick slice of dark, hardwood as its base and 12 steel bars of varying lengths descending from it. At the bottom of each bar hung a lightbulb, but no two bulbs were alike, so it cast a strange, bold scintillating light across the room. Cue the Dowager Countess from Downton Abbey saying, “Good Heavens, what a glare – I feel as I were on stage at the gaiety!” But Beth adores her chandelier. She explained that she found it at a craftsman’s guild in Brooklyn, and she was drawn to it because it was unusual, unique, and made by a young artist who had grown up in her hometown. This last serendipitous detail made it seem to her like it was destiny to own it, so Beth bought it on the spot.
“I never had such a gratifying experience,” she told me. “I loved the piece. I also loved knowing that it was the only one of its kind. But the best part was supporting an upcoming artist. Maybe someday he’ll make a name for himself.”
Supporting aspiring artisans is a common theme among those who collect handcrafted goods. A man from Phoenix bought handcrafted furniture from India to decorate his old farmhouse. This seemed to be an odd pairing, but somehow it worked. In one corner of the room he had a particularly interesting piece he called an Urchin’s Throne – basically a small ottoman made of brass and mango wood that he cherished because of the intricately carved design.
“The quality is much better,” he explained, “and to think that someone carved all that by hand.” He went on to echo Beth’s sentiment, saying that he loved the idea of buying handmade items because they had a backstory, they were unique and served as a reliable conversation pieces for guests.
“But I really love knowing that I am helping craftsman from other countries. I feel like I’m helping them continue a tradition – a craft that has lasted centuries – that might be lost otherwise. Plus, my foreign dollars help support their family.”
The desire to own hand crafted items is fueled by so many different motives that go beyond taste and preference. Some people find gratification in helping aspiring artists gain funding and an audience. Others see more merit in supporting foreign craftsman and their families, while simultaneously preserving age-old traditions. There’s even a sizable market for collectors who seek out work made exclusively by recycled or repurposed material. But whatever the cause, most collectors search for goods that tell a story or capture the imagination. They want something with a thumbprint. Even non-collectors see the appeal in sheer originality.
Carline says she keeps the Sankofa figurine on her writing desk next to her jade, aloe and sedum plants, and every time she look at it she’s reminded of her trip to Charleston. More than that though, this quirky carved bird embodies the message “reach back and get it”. She says that this message has become a small reminder to go inward for greater focus. It helps her write.
“Sometimes I think of Kofi the artist, and I imagine him sitting in a small shed intensely focused on his work. I can just picture him sitting there working. He chooses the various carving tools without having to look down – his old, leathery hands picking the right tool every time, just by feel alone. His eyes are glassy, and he sits on a small stool that he made himself years and years ago. A lanky, yellow dog sleeps on the floor, and the only sounds are the scrapping of wood and the occasional crow of a rooster far off at a neighboring farm”.
Carline doesn’t know if this is an accurate depiction of Kofi’s life. Laughing, she says, “For all I know, he might work in a swanky, downtown studio”. But the story she has spun around the piece comforts her. Moreover, this hand crafted sculpture gives her pleasure, which, in the end is basically all that really matters.