‘AFTERLIVES’ – Emily Orr

RESPONSE #5 Emily Orr

In our most recent 100 Hours session Simon Werrett encouraged us to think about the “afterlife” of objects: What happens to an object at the end of its circulation? How do we determine when that end is met or when an object is broken? To spark conversation he brought along a microscope, with faulty mechanisms, that his father had given him as a gift. This object is no longer of practical use in the academic scientific community, but by entering into the 100 Hours discussion, the microscope was the successful driving force in a circulation of ideas for which it was never intended. So in this case, the microscope’s disrepair and termination of use in one context gave rise to its pertinence and function in another context.

Ten-Legged Stool, Ethnography Collections, UCL

Ten-Legged Stool, Ethnography Collections, UCL

My ten-legged stool now has a physical afterlife in the Ethnographic collections at UCL but during its time in Africa it may have also been associated with a spiritual afterlife. For the Akan, neighbors to the Nupe who likely made my object, stools were thought to be the soul of the household. When not in use, the stool was tipped on its side so that no outside force could occupy it or contaminate the soul of its owner. After the owner’s death, the stool was thought to house his spirit.

Simon also brought up the question of how durability is considered or promoted in the design of an object in order to extend its life. Composed entirely of wood, this stool would have been susceptible to destruction by fires or insects or to rotting due to the humid climate. The stool’s solid construction bodes well for its durability. The particular wood chosen for the form would have had to be strong enough to hold the weight of a human but soft enough to carve into its top. This carving on its top, a visual highlight of the stool’s design, cuts away at its solid surface and exposes it to chipping, cracking and further damage. Although this stool does not appear to have been treated, some stools (maybe those more decorated, painted, or of higher value and made for ritual purposes) were covered with powdered camwood (sandalwood) and then a coating of tree gum to protect the wood from water damage and to ward off termites. Beginning in the twentieth century, wood has gradually been replaced by more modern durable materials such as plastics in the makeup of domestic objects. Wooden spoons and bowls are no longer in such widespread use and beds are more often made of metal. Today stools are one of the only forms of decorative carving that is still in demand and this is due to the tourist market. So while the form’s circulation in the everyday African context may be coming to an end, at UCL, where the stool is kept in museum storage or in the hands of careful researchers, it is likely to have a long afterlife.

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