This chair or throne was one of the principal symbols of the authority of a Chokwe chief. The Chokwe state was founded in the sixteenth century, when nobles from the neighboring Lunda empire migrated to northern Angola and asserted their rule over local peoples. As the state grew in wealth and power, so too did the Chokwe chiefs, who emphasized the divine nature of their ancestry. The political and religious importance of the chiefs was underscored through the creation of lavishly carved utilitarian objects, including staffs, tobacco mortars, combs, and chairs, that served as insignia of rank and prestige.
This chair was modeled on a type of European chair that was imported into the area by Portuguese officials beginning in the seventeenth century. Having previously used caryatid stools as seats of office, Chokwe chiefs adopted the chair as a symbol of their authority because the form was associated with powerful foreigners. Like its European prototype, the Chokwe chair was made from several pieces of wood joined together, rather than a single block of wood typical of African carving traditions.
Aspects of the chair are European in derivation, such as the leather-covered seat and decorative brass tacks, an imported luxury. However, Chokwe artisans incorporated the style and iconography of their established sculptural traditions. On this example, the backrest is topped on either side by a carved head wearing a chief’s headdress, while in the center, two birds drink from a shared vessel. Rows of figures along the rungs and back splats depict characters and scenes from both everyday and ceremonial life. Here, images of hunting, trade, and domestic activities are juxtaposed with representations of ritual events, such as initiation and masquerades. Together, the scenes describe an ordered and harmonious society over which the chief presides.
© 2006 The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (by permission)