Okyeame Poma, or Linguist Staff

   Linguist's staff by the Ashanti people from Ghana, West Africa
  Linguist's staff or Okyeame Poma from the Ashanti people, Ghana, West Africa

Go back a hundred years to the Ashanti Kingdom in Ghana, West Africa, and you could hear entire conversations and debates spoken in proverbs – simple meaningful sentences meant to entertain and inform. Oral traditions were such a part of Ashanti society; well over three thousand proverbs were taught and passed down from one generation to the next. Yet, when it came to proverbs no one surpassed a dignitary in the Ashanti royal courts – the Linguist's – whose job was to interpret the chief’s pronouncements through the recitation of proverbs. Their performance was associated with all sorts of regalia, the most important being a carved work of art known simply as a Linguist's Staff.

Staff motifs, such as the fish, depict Ashanti proverbs  
Staff motifs, such as the fish, depict Ashanti proverbs  

This week’s new arrival features an Ashanti Linguist's Staff. Like others of its kind, the carved detachable finial depicts one or more of the proverbs recited by the Linguist. The staff represents the power of a single proverb to get us to think about our life and behavior. This one is obviously about fish, and although there are many fish proverbs, one stands head and tail above the others. It says, “A fish does not know the importance of water!” Just nine words, it provides a commentary on taking things for granted, implying fish take water for granted until the water is no longer there. It asks us to recognize the gifts surrounding us; to see them as crystal clear as water.

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Part of a much larger collection of authentic African art