‘VOCABULARY FOR THE EVERYDAY’ – Emily Orr

RESPONSE #3 Emily Orr

Ten-Legged Stool, Ethnography Collections, UCL

Ten-Legged Stool, Ethnography Collections, UCL

Our last session with Catherine Richardson prompted my thinking on two topics – the notion of the everyday and the tool of vocabulary in the study of material culture. I realized that I chose my object, an African ten-legged stool, as a challenge and in part because I do not have a sense of the everyday life of the Africans who made and used it and I do not already possess the appropriate vocabulary to describe and interpret it. So I will use this post as the start of exploratory research in those two areas.
The UCL online catalogue lists this stool as “Wooden stool with ten legs and a geometrical pattern on the seat” and its origin as “Africa/Democratic Republic of Congo.” It has been placed in the object category: “furniture, dwelling,” which does suggest everyday use. After some brief initial research I have determined a few key basics and expanded upon this limited vocabulary with which to understand the object: The stool was likely made by a Nupe craftsman based in central or northern Nigeria. The stool was carved from a single block and its abstract geometric design, inspired by Arabic script, speaks to the Muslim faith of its maker. Stools of this type were often given as presents from a husband to his bride upon their marriage. The top’s elaborate decoration and great number of legs would have reflected the husband’s prestige at the time of his gift. Although the stool would have initially served as a symbolic gift on a special occasion, the furniture form would have acquired a long-term everyday use for basic activities such as cooking and spinning completed by the female.
An internet image search of Nupe stools turns up a good number of current listings at galleries and online auctions. Presumably craftsmen are still producing forms of this type (UCL’s example likely dates to the early twentieth century). I was intrigued to find that similar stools often appear on today’s interior design blogs; this presence suggests a curious use of the stool in the contemporary everyday setting far from its African origins. A Pinterest board dedicated to Nupe stools suggests that the stools could make “Perfect side-tables for the living or bedroom. Abstract carvings on the top face add interest and depth.” Images show the stool stacked with issues of Architectural Digest or holding a flower vase next to a fireplace. The stool’s particular appeal was built around its contrast to the often slick minimalist interior that it occupied. For instance, one website described, “Here the sculptural, hand-carved quality of the stool on the hearth contrasts the stark white brick wall. Note how perfectly paired the stool is with the modern Saarinen Tulip chair.” Somehow this odd online finding offered responses to both my interests in vocabulary and the everyday — in this new interior decoration context, the stool is desirable due to its African design vocabulary and although incongruous, the stool’s everyday use is ongoing.

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