The Yoruba people, numbering over eighteen million, are one of the best known and most artistically prolific tribes of Sub-Saharan Africa. They are centered in southwestern Nigeria, with a significant population extending into the neighboring Republic of Benin. In addition, many people in both North and South America claim Yoruban ancestry, a result of the Atlantic slave trade. Although Yoruban peoples have long referred to themselves by specific group names based on the towns they inhabit, they are all united by the Yoruba language, a common mythology, and related artistic styles, suggesting there is a common identity linking all the people. Historically, the Yoruba lived in politically centralized city-states, the most famous of which are Ife (the mythological nexus of creation), Owo, and Oyo (from which the name Yoruba was derived by missionaries). Yoruba art is now designated by the name of the geographic locale a particular group inhabited. Some individual artists and workshops have also been identified. The Yoruba are famed for their beadwork, which was used to decorate attributes of kings, including foot rests, crowns, and cloaks. Other major art forms include textiles, figurative implements used by herbalists and diviners, small figures carved to honor deceased twins (called ibeji dolls), cast copper-alloy ritual objects, as well as decorative stools and veranda posts that would have belonged to the king.
Stools lift the body off the ground. If you are an important person, you do not sit on the ground; you sit on a stool. The stool signifies that the person seated on it should receive respect. Stools that use carved figures to hold up the seat reflect back to the days when important people used human slaves as seats. In Africa, the stool more than any other item is the penultimate symbol of authority. One need only think of the significance of the throne to the great monarchs of the West to find a similar comparison. Quite simply, the leader rules over the people as he or she is physically and symbolically lifted above the masses seated upon the ground. Thus the basis of power is the stool.To the Yoruba people, stools were an important attribute of kings and important chiefs, who defined their power by the display of prestige objects during important ceremonies. Stools were among the most important of these objects.
This magnificent stool is a masterpiece of Yoruba wood carving. The overall form of the work retains that shape of the tree trunk from which it was cut. Despite the fact that is has been somewhat hollowed out inside, it remains strong and sturdy. An elaborate processional frieze of multiple figures has been carved in relief along the body of the stool. Perhaps the most impressive figure is a naked woman who stands with bent knees and her arms held behind her head. A snake is wrapped around her waist, the neck of which is held by a crocodile that flanks the woman. Most likely, this woman represents one of the Yourba goddesses. Other figures represented include a musician blowing on an ivory horn who wears a bag slung over his back that has been engraved with a grid motif indicating that it is a beaded diviner’s bag. Another figure carries a drum hanging from his neck, suggesting he is a musician, while a female figure in front of him waves a Shango staff as she dances. More animals are also depicted, including a bird and another coiled snake. Considering the iconography of this stool, it is possible that it once belonged to a high priest of the Shango cult.