The Portland jeweler makes patterns out of traditional symbols from his native Ghana.
Akakpo designs his jewelry patterns by stringing together adinkra, traditional symbols from his native Ghana.
By Amy Sutherland Photographs courtesy of Akakpo & Co.
Ebenezer Akakpo assumed he’d become an architect just like his father. But the elder Akakpo told his son he would become a jeweler. In Ghana, people respect their elders and follow their advice, Akakpo explains, so he did as he was told, though he was disappointed. He thought it would be a common trade. “I wanted to do something prestigious,” Akakpo, now 44, says.
To his relief, making jewelry wasn’t lowly at all. It also turned out to be a winding path that would lead him through long years of education and to different continents, eventually landing him in Maine. Four years ago, he launched his design business, making metal cuffs and earrings with intricate patterns of repeating traditional Ghanaian symbols. Called adinkra, the symbols represent concepts and sayings — a stylized flower with pointed petals, for example, means “greatness.” Adinkra are everywhere in Ghana, Akakpo says, in fabrics, on pottery, and even worked into architecture, lending objects specific meanings and expressing people’s desires. Akakpo, who crafts his jewelry in his Westbrook studio after working a full day in the IT department at Maine Turnpike Authority, has designed patterns using adinkra representing abundance, affluence, bravery, endurance, friendship, hope, loyalty, strength, supremacy of god, and unity. He also has a line of patterned totes and pillows.
He trained as a fine jeweler in Ghana and Italy before moving to Portland in 1998 to attend the Maine College of Art. He mistakenly thought MECA was strictly a jewelry-making school and was frustrated at first, but he stuck out the sculpture, drawing, and painting classes and, he says, graduated with a far more creative design sense.
Akakpo then went on to earn a master’s in industrial design at the Rochester Institute of Technology, in New York. While there, he thought about ways he could use his design skills to solve problems, such as the lack of access to safe drinking water in rural Ghana. For his thesis project, he envisioned a small filtration pump that is inexpensive and easy for families to use. He then partnered with New York nonprofit B9 Plastics to develop the Better Water Maker, which destroys microbes using ultraviolet light. Today, Akakpo donates 70 percent of the proceeds from his Emekor line of inexpensive earrings, made from recycled plastics, to ship, distribute, and install the pumps for needy families in Ghana. It’s his way of adding another layer of meaning to his work.
TELL US MORE EBENEZER AKAKPO
How has Maine influenced your work?
One day, I said to myself, I want to tell the story of Maine. What is that story? It’s about lobsters, moose, lighthouses, and deer. So I started taking those symbols and fitting them in a circle. I printed that on a tote bag. It looked like someone is carrying the world of Maine.
Do you design on the computer?
Sometimes I design by hand. The computer is a cool technology, but without enough creativity, it will disappoint. What you put in it is what you get out. What it has afforded to me is the symmetry that I want in my work.
Which metals do you use in your work?
Bronze and silver. I once promised myself I would never work with either, only platinum and gold. Then the economy crashed in 2008, and people moved away from very expensive jewelry. I had to get off my high horse. I learned how to combine the symbols of my country with bronze, gold plate them, and bring them up to a level of sophistication.
What are the most popular symbols?
At one point, everyone wanted “hope.” Then they wanted “patience.” Right now, it’s “strength” and “endurance.” Endurance is my favorite. If an experience breaks you down, you just pick what’s good about that. To do what I’m doing, you need to be resilient.
What’s the status of the Better Water Maker project?
Thus far, I have a few of the older versions of the UV units in Ghana. I am currently working out a strategy with B9 Plastics to send a few more of the new units to Ghana by the close of this year or early next year.