The Monkey and the Shark: An African Folk Tale

By Louise Irvine

The old African folktale of The Monkey and the Shark brings two worlds together at WMODA this season. The wit and humor of the Ardmore artists from South Africa combines with the wonders of the deep symbolized by Rhanu, our mermaid in residence. On Saturday, January 16, Rhanu will tell the story of the monkey and the shark to audiences of all ages and discuss her role in shark conservation. More monkeys will be participating in A Safari for the Soul exhibition, which has been extended until January 23rd to allow more visitors to experience this stunning Ardmore show.

The Heart of a Monkey

The tit for tat tale of the monkey and the shark comes from Zanzibar on the east coast of Africa. A monkey who lives in the trees dreams of swimming in the sea like a shark. A scheming shark encourages the monkey to jump on his back and takes him for a ride. Surfing the waves is great fun until the shark announces that he wants to eat the monkey’s heart. The quick-witted monkey explains that he has left his heart in the tree and persuades the shark to take him back to land. The moral of the story is – the presence of mind often saves us!

The Heart of a Monkey was retold by Andrew Lang in the Lilac Fairy Book in 1910 with illustrations by Henry Justice Ford. He illustrated a similar fairytale from Japan featuring the The Monkey and the Turtle in The Violet Fairy Tale book. In this version, the monkey convinced the turtle that he had left his liver hanging in his tree. The turtle lost his shell and bones in punishment for letting the monkey escape with his liver and became a jellyfish. One of Ford’s beautiful illustrations shows the monkey and the turtle with mermaids meeting the Queen of the Seas.

The Shark

Rhanu, our beautiful WMODA mermaid, describes herself as a “mershark” as her tail is inspired by the whale shark. In Madagascar, the whale shark’s name means ‘many stars’ as this gentle giant’s skin is patterned with white spots and stripes, which are unique to each individual. Glass artist, Chelsea Rousso, is currently studying these intriguing patterns to create a new glass bikini top for Rhanu to wear at our Fantasy, Fashion and Fun in the Fired Arts event on January 16. The marine world is a major influence on Chelsea’s glass art and she is always beachcombing and taking photographs near her studio in Lauderdale-by-the-Sea.

The whale shark is the largest known fish species, and it lives in the open waters of the tropical oceans. They can be seen in the Caribbean and also in South Africa where it was first classified in 1828 after a specimen was harpooned in Table Bay. The name was derived from its huge size and its mode of filter-feeding of plankton and krill just like whales. Despite its size, the whale shark poses no threat to humans and it has been known to give rides to divers, so the Ardmore shark rider is not such an impossible feat!

Bonnie Ntshalintshali, the first Ardmore artist, started the studio’s interest in marine life when she sculpted the Bible story of Jonah and the Whale for an exhibition in 1990. The tradition has continued with whale riders, fish riders, and shark riders for later Ardmore exhibitions such as Kingdom of the Zulus from the Savanna to the Sea. There is even an extraordinary Ardmore octopus rider and a mermaid riding on a seahorse at WMODA. What the Ardmore sculptures lack in anatomical accuracy, they make up for with their whimsical spirit and entertainment value!

Our WMODA mermaid Rhanu knows a lot about sharks. On land, she is better known as Alexandra Barth, a graduate student at the Marine Science Master’s program at NSU. Alex is passionate about shark ecology and introducing guests to the importance of conserving Florida’s ocean environment. For several years, she has been participating in shark tagging surveys off the coast of South East Florida. For her Masters degree, she is focusing on nurse, sandbar, lemon, tiger, and great hammerhead sharks.

Rhanu made her WMODA debut at Halloween when she launched our fun and informative Mermaid Quest scavenger hunt around the museum. You can learn more about mermaids and WMODA in our Curator’s Choice video, which features one of the most impressive artworks in the museum. You can also watch interviews with Rhanu and the participating artists and special guests in the video of this event on our YouTube channel.

Find out more about marine conservation and education from Evan Snow, the founder of the Ocean Rescue Alliance, which is pledged to save our oceans one reef at a time. ORA and the partner organizations 1000 Mermaids and Reef Cells create artificial reefs incorporating art and innovative designs to enhance marine habitats, fish populations, and coral restoration. They recently deployed more sculptures off the coast of Palm Beach County and are working on a new deployment in the summer for Dania Beach, home of WMODA.

The Monkey

The monkey has become an emblem of the Ardmore Ceramic Art Studio in South Africa and they have even started wearing masks during COVID-19! They symbolize playfulness and mischief as can be seen in the Ardmore designs. Monkeys are a familiar sight at Ardmore as troops come down from the hills looking for food and to play in the grounds. The Ardmore artists have many opportunities to observe their antics and their ceramic monkeys cavort on vases, tureens, and jardinières.

One of the most impressive sculptures at WMODA depicts a Mandrill monkey being ridden by a Zulu Warrior. Mandrills are the world’s largest monkeys and are known for their brightly colored faces. They are hiding in the lush foliage of the Savuti wallpaper pattern by Cole & Son. Sometimes the Ardmore monkeys are pursued by their main predator, the leopard, as can be seen in the Zambezi sofa at WMODA. Scatter cushions in the popular Monkey Paradise pattern come in many different fabrics and colors and can be purchased in the WMODA shop.

The monkey’s relationship to human beings preoccupied the Victorians following the publication of Charles Darwin’s controversial Origin of the Species in 1859. Debates on the vexed question of man’s descent from the ape divided society and satirical cartoons often showed monkeys and apes acting as humans. Monkeys were often used also to illustrate human foibles and moral points in the animal fables of Aesop, a storyteller and slave in ancient Greece. Illustrated editions of the fables have been edifying reading since they were first published in English in the 15th century. Monkeys have also featured in fables from Japan and Africa, as can be seen in The Monkey and the Shark.

Closer to home, monkeys have a curious history in Florida. Near WMODA in Dania Beach, there is a colony of African vervet monkeys descended from animals that escaped into the mangrove forests during the 1950s from the Anthropoid Ape Research Center. Known locally as the Chimp Farm, it attracted tourists who came to learn about primates while enjoying some alligator wrestling on the side!

In the 1930s, monkeys were trained to ride racing dogs for sport in Florida. Twelve infant Capuchin monkeys, imported from Panama, were raised with twelve Greyhound puppies so that they would form close bonds. They were dressed in jockey outfits and photographed in action in Florida before the act was taken around the country.

Today such activities are frowned upon and fortunately there are now organizations to protect all types of simians. The Center for Great Apes in Florida is a nonprofit organization with a mission to provide a permanent sanctuary for orangutans and chimpanzees who have been rescued from research, retired from the entertainment industry, or who are no longer wanted as pets. They receive support from Endangered: Art4Apes, a team of art and photography lovers who believe that art can reach people all over the globe and win hearts and minds for the cause of preserving the environment. To this end, they organize exhibitions, contests, and other events to focus attention on all that is endangered in our world.


Artwork featuring monkeys and apes

The history of monkeys in ceramic art

Mermaids at WMODA

Rhanu the Mermaid

The Mermaid Quest Video