To many of us Westerners, African art exudes an aura of otherworldly mysticism. We think of intricate masks and figures that resemble beings not human, or ritual objects with mysterious powers that we are unable to exploit. These ritual objects, of course, have incredible cultural value; but in some cases, the everyday and seemingly mundane can communicate an even deeper, richer part of a civilization’s existence.
An example that I have found to be unexpectedly profound is African stools. Some are simple, some are elaborate, and the scope of variety is incredible. Aside from the aesthetic value of these objects, they symbolize much deeper aspects of daily life.
Not to over-glorify what is often merely a carved piece of wood, many stools are simply furniture, a place to sit, with no deeper significance. But others serve very particular purposes for milestones in life such as births, initiations, deaths, or marriage. Often they are status symbols of the political or spiritual elite, similar to a Western king’s throne.
The stool featured above, part of the Muriel and Marcus Zbar Collection, is from the Dogon people of Mali. Traditionally, the Dogon worship ancestral spirits called nommo, represented here in the center of the stool. The bottom disc represents the earth, the top disc represents the heaven or sky, and the nommo are the essential beings that responsible for holding the universe together and providing a link between the two worlds. These stools used to be symbols of authority for hogons, or priests, and were never actually used as seats.