Linguist Staff with Rooster and Hen (Okyeame Poma)

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Linguist Staff with Rooster and Hen (Okyeame Poma), Early/mid-20th century

Wood and gold leaf
170.2 x 15.2 x 20.3 cm (67 x 6 x 8 in.)
Gift of Richard Faletti, the Faletti Family Collection, 1999.376.1-3

The Asante kingdom was the most powerful of numerous states that emerged at the beginning of the 15th century within the present-day country of Ghana. The kingdom's position between the rich gold fields of the north and the coast, where European ships vied for trade, assured its wealth and maintained its focus on gold as a symbol of affluence and power. Asante art is often related to oral traditions, including messages expressed through proverbs, sayings, or accounts of history. Staffs with decorative finials like this one bearing the figures of a rooster and hen are owned by the official spokesman, or linguist, of an Asante chief as symbols of his office.

This finial refers to the proverb, "The hen knows well when it is dawn, but leaves it to the cock to announce." This proverb may reference the decision-making power of the chief, represented by the rooster, as opposed to the wisdom of the elders, represented by the hen, and the role the linguist plays in mediating between the two. This staff, thus, is not only a royal insignia, but also a symbol of the shrewd and eloquent diplomat that the okyeame, or linguist, must be.

β€” Descriptive text

An Asante proverb states, β€œThe hen knows well when it is dawn, but leaves it to the cock to announce.” This proverb speaks not only to gender relations, but also to the decision-making powers of a chief, represented by the rooster, and the opinions of the people, represented by the hen. It is the okyeame (linguist) whose job it is to mediate between the two by repeating the spoken words of both and appropriately embellishing and stylizing the words of the chief with proverbs. Gold-covered staffs, like this accomplished example, are the insignia of okyeame and are carried at all official occasions.

β€” Permanent collection label

Exhibition, Publication and Ownership Histories

Exhibition History

Art Institute of Chicago, Gold of Africa: Jewelry and Ornaments from Ghana, Cote d'Ivoire, Mali and Senegal in the collection of the Barbier-Mueller Museum, June 20-August 25, 1991.

Publication History

Herbert Cole, Icons: Ideals and Power in the Art of Africa (Smithsonian Institution Press, 1989), pp. 30 (ill.).

Ownership History

William Wright Gallery, New York, N.Y., by 1986; sold to Richard J. Faletti (died 2006) and Barbara Faletti (died 2000), Chicago, Ill. and Phoenix, Ariz., 1986; given to the Art Institute, 1999.