While their subjects sat on the ground, African rulers sat elevated on stools or chairs. In societies where all were entitled to such furniture, the highest-ranking political and religious officials owned seats that were larger and more elaborate. European chairs, introduced to West Africa by Portuguese merchants in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, were appropriated as symbols of power and authority.
African peoples drew inspiration for their chairs (thrones) from the European model—with its backrest and four legs connected by stretchers—but did not slavishly copy it; instead, they adapted it to local tastes and needs. The position of the backrest, for example, is rarely upright; instead, it is set at an oblique angle. Moreover, the decoration on the backrest and stretchers is figurative and refers to indigenous daily life, history, mythology, or religion.
Chokwe chiefs in Angola and the Democratic Republic of the Congo first encountered the European chair in the seventeenth century. In addition to the full-sized thrones, Chokwe chiefs had smaller versions that traveled with them on visits to their villages or to the market. The Dallas chair is a fine example of a traveling throne. The textured backrest is decorated with the head of an ancestral chief wearing an elaborate hairstyle or headdress and a pair of horns, which represent the animal horns that were filled with supernatural substances to protect the ruler. The scenes on the stretchers refer to daily life: travel by boat; a couple copulating; and ancestors displaying the characteristic gestures of arms folded across their chests or hands resting on their knees (see detail, below). The seated or crouched figure on the back stretcher represents a Cihongo masquerader wearing an elaborate headdress, wooden mask, and raffia skirt. Cihongo is the male ancestor who symbolizes chiefly wealth, power, and justice. In the distant past, the chief or his sons wore a similar mask when they went to collect tribute (food, cloth, beads, and livestock) from their subjects.(37)
The Arts of Africa at the Dallas Museum of Art, cat. 19, pp. 80-81.