Examining Ghana’s use of intellectual property law to protect adinkra and kente fabrics

In Ghana, adinkra and kente textiles derive their significance from their association with both Asante and Ghanaian cultural nationalism. In her new book The Copyright Thing Doesn’t Work Here, Boatema Boateng, associate professor of communication at the University of California, San Diego, focuses on the appropriation and protection of adinkra and kente cloth in order to examine the broader implications of the use of intellectual property law to preserve folklore and other traditional forms of knowledge.

Adinkra cloth with nwhemu stitching.


Associate professor of communication at the University of California, San Diego

Q: First, what are adinkra and kente textiles?

Adinkra textiles are fabrics with designs stenciled onto them using a black dye. The fabric is used mainly for funerals, but when the designs are stenciled onto a white background, adinkra cloth can also be used for celebration. Each adinkra design has a specific meaning, for example, the most well-known design, Gye Nyame, refers to the power of God.

Kente cloth is made using the strip-weaving technique that is widespread in different parts of Africa. In Ghana, the name “kente” refers to the strip-woven cloth of two ethnic groups, the Ewe, and the Asante. My book focuses on Asante kente cloth, which tends to have more abstract designs and a more vibrant color palette than Ewe kente. As with adinkra cloth, the designs of kente cloth also have specific meanings. Where adinkra is used mainly for funerals, kente is used mainly for celebration.

Popular myths link both adinkra and Asante kente cloth to the Asante kingdom, which emerged in the early 18th century in the area that is now called Ghana and still exists in diminished form. Adinkra is said to have come from Gyaman, near the border between Ghana and the Ivory Coast, and kente from Salaga, to the northeast of Asante.

Q: How do these textiles derive their significance?

They derive their significance from a number of sources. The most important of these are the fabrics’ association with (and reflection of) Asante royalty, culture, and history, as well as Ghanaian culture and history. The textiles are also significant for the symbolism of the designs used in their production, and in their primary association with death and mourning, in the case of adinkra cloth, and with wealth and celebration, in the case of kente.

Q: How does the appropriation of adinkra and kente textiles compare with appropriation issues that continue in other indigenous communities (such as yoga)?

At a very general level, the appropriation of adinkra and kente is similar to the appropriation of other forms of culture produced by indigenous peoples and local communities, especially when those cultural forms are deemed to lie outside the realm of intellectual property law.

However, Ghana cannot be described as an indigenous community in the same sense as, say, Native American communities in the U.S. Rather, the Ghanaian copyright protection of adinkra and kente designs is similar to cases like India’s patent protection of yoga poses because they involve the claims of nations over cultural production within their territories. The Ghanaian and Indian examples also show that indigenous culture takes a wide range of forms, and this is evident in the different kinds of intellectual property law that these nations have chosen in order to protect these cultural forms.

Q: The kente strip on the cover of your book depicts the copyright symbol. If kente cloth producers incorporate non-Ghanaian elements into their work, can it not be argued that they are also guilty of appropriation?

Weavers have for several years diversified their cloth production by incorporating a range of images into kente strips. Those images include numbers, letters, words, adinkra symbols and the symbols of sororities and fraternities (in the case of strips woven for the U.S. market). While departing somewhat from the abstract nature of most Asante kente designs, these strips retain important elements of kente cloth. In the examples shown in the book, the middle portions of the strips are similar to conventional kente cloth in featuring alternating panels and a traditional stool design.

These newer woven images and symbols are testimony to the dynamic and changing nature of cloth production as well as the skill of cloth producers. I should make special mention of Joseph Amegah of Accra, who wove the strip on the book cover. He was shown the copyright symbol, asked to weave it in a kente strip, and the result is the beautiful and original piece on the cover of the book.

That argument has been made (that appropriation exists here). However, a number of scholars argue that appropriation must be considered in relation to factors like the relative power of the actors involved. I share this view and in the book, I examine appropriation in relation to factors that include the scale at which it occurs, the medium in which it occurs, and the political and economic projects underpinning it.

Kente cloth in aberewa ben design.

Q: What parallels or divergences do you see between your work and others working in indigenous studies?

Many of us are concerned with the simultaneous marginalization and appropriation of the cultural production of indigenous peoples around the world and of local communities in Third World nations. Such marginalization and appropriation of indigenous cultural products, be they medicinal plants or fabric designs, relegates them to the status of raw materials, rather than artistic and scientific goods in their own right. This leaves them open to appropriation – often by groups and individuals who then claim ownership of their appropriations by recourse to intellectual property law.

Our work diverges in that my research focuses on a country that is different from indigenous communities because it has full independence and sovereignty as a nation-state. While it can be argued that nations like Ghana occupy a status that is neocolonial rather than fully postcolonial, they are equal, in some important respects, to other independent nations. This means that compared to indigenous peoples, they have relatively privileged access to the institutions of the international community. These include institutions that regulate the global circulation of cultural goods, like the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) and the World Trade Organization (WTO).

Q: What implications do your research and conclusions have for global attempts to protect or regulate the exchange of traditional knowledge?

My work challenges arguments that have been advanced against granting such knowledge protection within intellectual property regimes, especially those arguments that place so-called “traditional knowledge” and “modern art and science” in separate and unequal spheres. By pointing to the culturally and historically contingent nature of intellectual property law, my book demonstrates that such arguments often have more to do with the relative power of different groups of cultural producers, than with the nature of what they actually produce. In making this argument, my work also challenges the premises of intellectual property law as well as the increasing use of intellectual property regimes to advance the interests of industrialized nations over those of Third World nations and indigenous peoples. Finally, it underscores the need to radically re-think the ways that cultural production is conceptualized for the purposes of protection and circulation.

Q: Does your book come to any conclusions about regulating intellectual property?

An important principle in intellectual property law is that both creators and users should benefit from cultural products. However, in many of their current national and international forms, intellectual property regimes essentially protect the interests of large producers over the interests of users and less powerful producers. In this set of arrangements, groups ranging from independent filmmakers in the U.S. to adinkra and kente producers in Ghana are all placed at a disadvantage.

In addition, intellectual property is based on ideas of creativity that are not universal and do not apply very well to cultural products like adinkra and kente cloth. Therefore, my concern is not with the successful regulation of intellectual property law as it currently stands in most parts of the world, but with its successful reform or replacement. I am interested in how one might arrive at an alternative framework that is more just in being sensitive to the interests of both producers and users of cultural products.

One alternative I explore in the book draws on scholarship that calls for renewed attention to the commons as an alternative to intellectual property law. I explore the idea of the commons while seeking to overcome the ways that this concept has been used against the interests of indigenous peoples and Third World nations. All too often, the cultural production of these groups is viewed as occurring in the commons and therefore free for the taking.

I argue that the concept of the commons can be a useful one if one thinks of it as a space of specialized cultural production. In doing so, it is also important to pay attention to its boundaries, and respect the right of those who work within it to manage those boundaries and determine the conditions on which one can draw from it. It is also important to undo the hierarchical ranking of different kinds of commons-based cultural production by viewing different commons as inter-related rather than discrete entities. Such a perspective makes it harder to celebrate the privileged spaces of commons-based cultural production in the global North without paying attention to the relative lack of privilege in commons like those of adinkra and kente production in the global South.


Find out more in The Copyright Thing Doesn’t Work Here.

“This fine-grained historical and ethnographic inquiry into the social life of Ghanaian textiles is—quite simply and by several degrees of magnitude—the best study anywhere of how Western tropes of intellectual property fail to grasp the complexity of systems in which the traditional arts are practiced today. It should be required reading for policy-makers in world capitals and at international organizations.”
—Peter Jaszi, American University

This post published in partnership with First Peoples: New Directions in Indigenous Studies.

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