Figurative African Chair late 19th–Early 20th Century “Two Chieftains” F1295C

This chair is presided over by these two intense figures distinguished by headdresses that are surely badges of rank. Neither resembles the other in any way. All the figures on all three chairs are completely alive and individualized. So glad to have acquired them from the Bowers Museum. 34”h x 15”w x 16”d.

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In many societies of Central Africa, such as the Chokwe and related peoples like the Songo and the Ovimbundu, functional artifacts are transformed into prestige objects that commemorate the power and status of the chief. Chokwe chiefs possess many elaborately carved articles, including ceremonial weapons, staffs of office, tobacco pipes, and seats of office like this example.

Over the course of numerous encounters with European traders as early as the seventeenth century, Chokwe chiefs appropriated the design of certain types of Western artifacts. The seats of office, or “thrones,” of Chokwe chiefs, with backs, leather-covered seats, and decorative brass tacks, are modeled upon European chairs.

The rows of figures along the stretchers at the base of the chair are carved representations of scenes from everyday life. Images of hunting or trading are common, as illustrated on the front and back rungs, which feature men tending to cattle. In this piece, domestic activities like food preparation are depicted on the side rungs. The proper left rung features women tending to their children and pounding grain, while the proper right rung depicts men at work. These quotidian scenes are universally identifiable to the king’s constituency and serve as a juxtaposition to the ritual events depicted at the summit of the chair. The overall organization of these scenes creates a united visual narrative emphasizing the social harmony and continuity that is ultimately achieved through following the enlightened leadership of the chair’s owner, namely, the chief.

The Chokwe kingdom rose to power during the late nineteenth century in the broad expanse of open savanna in the southern region of the Democratic Republic of Congo and northern Angola. As the Chokwe population expanded, they eventually conquered the previously dominant Lunda empire, which declined after the abolition of the slave trade in the 1830s. The Chokwe peoples thrived primarily because of the profitable trade of ivory, wax, and rubber with the Portuguese. Chokwe chairs are among the few African objects not carved from a single piece of wood, but are instead assembled in parts.