Adinkra are visual symbols, originally created by the Akan, that represent concepts or aphorisms. Adinkra are used extensively in fabrics, pottery, logos and advertising. They are incorporated into walls and other architectural features. Fabric adinkra are often made by woodcut sign writing as well as screen printing. Adinkra symbols appear on some traditional akan gold weights. The symbols are also carved on stools for domestic and ritual use. Tourism has led to new departures in the use of the symbols in such items as T-shirts and jewelry.
The symbols have a decorative function but also represent objects that encapsulate evocative messages that convey traditional wisdom, aspects of life or the environment. There are many different symbols with distinct meanings, often linked with proverbs. In the words of Anthony Appiah, they were one of the means in a pre-literate society for "supporting the transmission of a complex and nuanced body of practice and belief"
Akan oral tradition dates the arrival of adinkra among the Akan to the end of the 1818 Asante–Gyaman War. However, the Englishman Thomas Edward Bowdich collected a piece of adinkra cloth in 1817, which demonstrates that adinkra art existed before the traditional starting date. Bowdich obtained this cotton cloth in Kumasi, a city in south-central Ghana. The patterns were printed using carved calabash stamps and a vegetable-based dye. The cloth features fifteen stamped symbols, including nsroma (stars), dono ntoasuo (double Dono drums), and diamonds. It is now in the British Museum.
The next oldest piece of adinkra textile was sent in 1825 from the Elmina Castle to the Royal Cabinet of Curiosities in The Hague, in response to an assignment from Major F. Last, who was appointed temporary Commander ofDutch possessions along the Guinea Coast. He probably had the cloth commissioned for King William I, which would explain why the Dutch coat of arms is in the centre. The other motifs are typical of the older adinkras. It is now on display in the National Museum of Ethnology in Leiden.