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  • Rainey Knudson

Eaten by the Sea, Part 1: Osei Bonsu Staff (329 words)

This African staff by the Asante artist Osei Bonsu is in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (part of the Alfred Glassell “African Gold” bounty, given to the museum in 1997).

According to the MFAH wall text, the remarkable staff, with its finial depicting a man in the mouth of a whale, once belonged to “the Akan state of Ahanta” on the Southern coast of present-day Ghana (whether that means it belonged to an individual chief, or generally to a local government, is unclear).

The text says the finial “tells the story of how the first chief of Ahanta came from the mouth of a whale to claim the costal lands between two rivers.” (More on that story here.) The staff is dated c. 1950.

It’s a fantastic object, and I wondered if the origin story behind it had any relationship with the Biblical story of Jonah and the Whale. This sent me down a rabbit hole about mythology involving whales eating and regurgitating people, which is a deep rabbit hole indeed—it’s a myth that goes back to human prehistory, originally having to do with a sea monster, or just chaos/darkness generally, “swallowing” the sun every night, which would escape the following morning. Like a lot of our species’ most enduring mythologies, the whale-eating story is about birth, specifically rebirth—a period of time spent in an underworld, followed by a re-emergence into the light. The whale story shows up throughout the world, in Semitic, Greek, Maori, Hawaiian, Hindu, Egyptian and Finnish mythologies, and doubtless others.

And like a lot of our species’ most enduring mythologies, there’s a lot of art that’s been made on the subject. More soon.

The MFAH owns eight staffs or staff finials by Bonsu, each with a different design. The one with the whale with a man in its mouth is on view as part of "The Marzio Years: Transforming the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 1982–2010," through January 10, 2021.

© Rainey Knudson 2020.

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