Orator’s stools are a classic form of sculpture from the Iatmul people who live upon the banks of the mighty Sepik River – an area known for its inventiveness and creativity in sculptural arts.
It is not actually for sitting upon, Kawa Rigit translates as ‘place for leaves’, during lengthy debates called Pabu between villages clans, the speaker emphasises key points of his argument as being the truth by placing strips of croton leaf on the stool. This action is somewhat similar to taking an oath in an Australian court, using the stool in such a way indicates that the ancestors are watching, listening and will spiritually confirm that the speaker is correct. The heavily political oratory using these stools has been known to last for several days with recantations of hundreds of ancestral names to back up a given point in heated arguments.
Small figures of women wearing bridal veils or rain capes, snakes, cat fish, crocodiles, flying foxes and birds can be seen around a bold and powerful ancestral figure. All of these figures are references to Sepik cosmology with each animal or figure relating to specific totems of the clan the stool was the property of. Only an artist recognised for their great carving ability by the clan would be allowed the privileged to create an orators stool.
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra