Among the Chokwe, thrones are the principal symbols of chiefly authority. Unlike the monoxylous stools typical of sub-Saharan design, this chair is constructed of separate pieces of wood joined together. Chokwe artists adapted its shape from European-style chairs introduced by Portuguese traders in the seventeenth century, and embellished the backrest and rungs with three-dimensional carvings of single figures and vignettes that catalogue the daily and ritual life of the court. In this example, a Chihongo masquerade figure wearing an oval hoop skirt and winged headdress artfully spans the top rail. The figure is echoed on the front stretcher by two masqueraders with skirts flared as if in motion. Depicted on the left rung is likely one of the chief’s sons or nephews, recognizable by his rounded top hat, while on the right rung a court musician plays a drum.
This Chokwe chair, a portable symbol of chiefly authority, adopts the design and construction techniques of European furniture, which Portuguese traders introduced to Central Africa in the sixteenth century. Chokwe artists carved their earliest four-legged chairs from single pieces of wood; as a result, these tended to be relatively compact and small in scale. This chair was constructed of separate pieces of wood joined together in the European fashion, its individual rungs and top rail embellished with carvings prior to assembly. The seat would have been covered with leather or hide, now missing from this example. The figures and vignettes artfully spanning the chair’s rungs catalogue the daily and ritual life of the Chokwe court: masqueraders wearing the winged Chihongo headdress, a drummer, and a younger male royal, recognizable by his rounded top hat.
At a time when Chokwe people in the area of present-day Angola and Democratic Republic of the Congo were besieged by the European slave trade, Chokwe artists radically appropriated designs from European furniture. Modeled after seventeenth-century European chairs, the portable “throne” became a symbol of Chokwe chiefly authority. By constructing this chair out of separate pieces of wood in the European fashion, its sculptor was able to depict figurative scenes characterizing daily and ritual life in the Chokwe kingdom. When ideas and techniques migrated to a new continent, they combined with local traditions to give rise to innovative aesthetic forms.
Juliana Ochs Dweck, Andrew W. Mellon Curator of Academic Engagement
Princeton University Art Museum: Handbook of the Collections, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Art Museum, 2013).
Princeton University Art Museum, Princeton University Art Museum: Handbook of the Collection, (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2007).
"Selected checklist of objects in the collection of African art," Record of the Art Museum, Princeton University 58, no. 1/2 (1999): p. 77–83.
Margaret Rose Vendryes, "Africa in repose: stools and headrests," Record of the Art Museum, Princeton University 58 no. 1/2 (1999): p. 38-53.