Ghana (West Africa)
late 19th - early 20th century
Found in modern Ghana, the Asante tribe of the Akan are the largest tribe in Ghana and one of the few matrilineal societies in West Africa. In the 15th and 16th centuries, trade flourished with the Songhai empire, Hausa states, and Europe, with gold exchanged for slaves and weapons. Agriculture thrived and slaves were used to clear the forests for farming. In addition to traditional crops of plantains, yams, and rice, maize and cassava were also planted. During the 1670s, Osei Tutu centralized the small Akan states into the hierarchical kingdom of Asante through diplomacy and warfare. Osei Tutu’s successor, Opoku Ware, increased Asante’s gold trade, reduced dependence on Europe by establishing distilleries and weaving industries, and increased the size of the kingdom. The Asante resisted the British in the early part of the 19th century and compensated for the loss of slave trade by increasing exportation of kola nuts with the northern regions of Africa. In 1873, the British captured the capital city of Kumasi and the Asante lost its independence a year later. By 1901, the region became part of the Gold Coast colony. After years of colonization, in 1935, the Ashanti Confederacy was restored by the Gold Coast government and 21 chiefdoms were recognized.
Although Asante stools are utilitarian objects and households would have several for visitors, these stools are also sacred objects. They are given as rites of passage, by the parents of a young boy or a groom to his bride. A person’s stool was thought to be imbued with its owner’s spirit, or “sunsum,” and sacredness of the stool increased with contact. When not in use, a stool is traditionally placed on its side so that another person’s spirit cannot settle on it.
Ornate carving, specific designs, and metal plating are often used on ceremonial stools. The Asante king possesses the Golden Stool, which symbolizes the unity of the tribe, and a number of other designs, including the elephant and leopard, are reserved for his use. State chiefs and other high ranking officials may own silver plated stools.
For notable members of the Asante, a stool may be blackened with soot and egg yolk upon death and preserved in a stool house where they are arranged in chronological order. Blackening is done to preserve the person’s memory, serve as a visible object of venerated ancestors, and enshrine the departed spirit.