Date: 19th–20th century
Culture: Akan peoples
Dimensions: H. 14 1/2 x W. 11 3/4 x D. 20 3/4in. (36.8 x 29.9 x 52.7cm)
Credit Line: The Bryce Holcombe Collection of African Decorative Art, Bequest of Bryce Holcombe, 1984
Accession Number: 1986.478.2
This ceremonial seat of office was once the prized possession of an Akan chief in the present-day country of Ghana. Its form exemplifies the "classical" Akan stool used as an icon of leadership throughout this region: a curved seat is supported by four slightly bowed legs and one openwork column, all raised on a stepped platform. Carved from a single piece of wood, these stools often display elaborate inlaid metal decorations or, as in this example, incised geometrical designs. The unusual five-legged form is referred to as kontonkrowie, or "the circular rainbow." It evokes the Akan proverb "the rainbow is around the neck of every nation," calling to mind the king's role in uniting and controlling the kingdom. On a more literal level, the five supports evoke the Akan model of statecraft (one king surrounded by chiefs) and the cosmos (the four cardinal points and central sun). Stools are sometimes also discussed in anthropomorphic terms, with the support described as the "neck" and the seat termed the "head" or "face."
An Akan ruler's stool occupies a place at the very center of his personal and political life. It is a potent indication of royal patronage, for only those chiefs considered sufficiently loyal to the king are granted permission to use them. In some areas, the transfer of chiefly power is consummated at the moment of the successor's first contact with his predecessor's stool. A leader's stool is so integrally linked to his identity that his death is described by the phrase "a stool has fallen." Before burial, a chief's body is ritually washed on the stool and after the funeral, the seat may be knocked sideways to prevent malevolent spirits from inhabiting it. The stools of the most important chiefs are blackened after the deaths of their owners through the ritual application of smoke and other offerings and are then placed on altars where they facilitate communication with the spirit of the deceased.