RESPONSE #4 Emily Orr
As Dr. Chris Laotauris was showing us images and video of early modern automatons, my eye searched immediately for the gears, screws, or springs, to decipher what was driving the object’s motion and to figure out how the object fit together. When I first confronted my ten-legged African stool, my eye did the same, scanning its solid surface looking for joints, nails or screws that held it together. In the case of the automatons, my curiosity drew from their obvious mechanical nature but in the case of my stool, my curiosity drew from my confusion at its lack of identifiable technical construction. I discovered after close analysis and some comparative research that the stool was indeed carved out of a single block of wood and so its solidity conveyed its capacity to function. Instead of the mechanical, the handmade nature of the stool is identifiable in the ridges and grooves of the carver’s tool. One can even see instances where the tool cut into the wood beyond the lines of its intended design. These marks survive as traces of the power of the human force behind the carving tool used.
During our discussion, I was fascinated to I learn that metal was once considered on the spectrum of living things. Therefore the material may have offered some spirit to the mechanics in the automatons that were in fact imitating live human motion. This meaning in materials prompted me to wonder about wood’s significance in African crafts. The once living quality of the wood is visually present in its grain that runs horizontally across the top and legs.
The ownership and display of this stool would have been an indicator of status, similar on a basic level to the ownership and display of the automatons. I do not think however that the stool occupied a distinct format of display, like that of the automaton in the cabinet of curiosity. The stool was a mobile object and could have moved from inside to outside, as the dirt at the base of its legs suggests. In our session we spoke about the importance of context and what a specific automaton may have communicated about its owner in relation to the objects that shared its display space. And so I began to consider what other objects might have surrounded my Nupe stool and what it may have conveyed about its owner. The stool would have visually coordinated with ceramics and metalwork with abstract decoration. Although made in the early twentieth century, it is likely that basic stools could still be at use in the domestic context for decades following or even today. Amidst the introduction of modern materials into African crafts and mechanics into objects of daily use, perhaps the stool has taken on a new meaning as a signifier of tradition.