Masterpiece of Chokwe Art: A Paramount Chief’s Throne

Masterpiece of Chokwe Art: A Paramount Chief’s Throne

T he degree of artistic refinement and elaboration characteristic of this throne reflects the quality and symbolic complexity of art forms exclusive to paramount chiefs at the peak of Chokwe political and cultural influence around the third quarter of the nineteenth century. The paramount himself appears in an inner stretcher scene below the throne’s seat. He is flanked by two wives and a child, and drinks beer or wine from a cup while a junior wife pours alcohol from a gourd into a serving container. The carved seated family depiction is almost hidden between the chair’s (several) scenes, but this symbolically places the ruler at the center of primary Chokwe-world interests.

Given that this throne dates from the time of Chokwe territorial expansion, other carved figurative scenes emphasize the theme of travel or journeys. This is depicted via canoe or palanquin and supported by chair stretchers that feature groups of warriors/titleholders and diviners (partially in procession) who provide protection for Chokwe affairs. These are shown holding axes in one scene or wearing special hats and carrying horns with powerful supernatural substances in another (front lower register). Because symbols are multi-referential and their ascribed meanings may vary according to context, it is pertinent to mention that both the canoe and the palanquin are discussed in divination through the concept of jila, that is “an extraordinary journey through a consequential path,” and a consideration of peoples’ journeys through life.

Within that definition issues of ancestry, lineage, and overall fertility are interrelated. Concepts of human and material fertility are emphasized on the back stretchers on this throne. The bottom register includes a mother and child scene with attendants, one holding medicines to care for their health. The figures’ gestures are iconic and reflect an ancestral past. This is a reference both to the well-being of the chief’s lineage as well as to that of his people. Above that is an exceptional representation of an ironsmith with bellows, a smelting furnace and forge attendants, correlating the theme of human fertility with that of iron technology and smelting as a form of conception. The resulting availability of tools and weapons helping to provide sustenance for all. Four miniature representations of birds are visible on the throne’s back (top) flanking the backside of a Chihongo mask character. The birds relate to fertility as well, symbols that (like the baboons) introduce concepts of balance with nature and the wilderness; birds often discussed in relation to harvest and agricultural gain.

The chair’s proper backrest includes a representation of Chihongo, a mask character and chiefly spirit of wealth and power. It appears flanked by two chief figures. Below, five Chikuza mask characters reinforce the theme of wealth, now associated with concepts of fertility introduced through (mukanda) initiation. The chair’s two front legs anchor the throne and all its narratives, taking the form of two tall female ancestral figures that further stress themes of lineage and continuity for the chief and all Chokwe.

By the richness of its iconography and the refinement of its sculpture this throne stands out as one of the most important of its corpus and masterfully affirms the power of the chief Chokwe who commissioned it.

African & Oceanic Art

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