A Throne with a Message–or Two

Throne frontI’m lucky enough to live within an easy drive of the Detroit Institute of Arts. When my husband and I have a (rare) free afternoon, we love to visit its galleries. Today we visited a one-piece exhibition called Balance of Power: Throne for an African Prince.

The throne is a masterpiece in wood, carved around 1930 by Yoruba artist Olówè of Ise. It was made for Prince Ilori, heir apparent of the town of Isè in southwestern Nigeria. The carving is extraordinary in intricacy, wit, and symbolism. The throne was created during a time when western colonizers were powerful in lands across Africa. Olówè used a variety of strategies to enhance the prince’s image of power. He melded the cylindrical stool shape that symbolized African kings’ right to rule with a European style throne back. But my favorite image is in the arms.

If you look carefully, you can see the armrests show a European being carried by Africans. A European visitor would have seen this as appropriately honoring the British district commissioner. But to a Yoruba viewer, the European figure symbolized colonial rule. Each time the Yoruba prince sat in his throne, his arms rested regally above this symbol of European power.

How clever was that?

It made me think about other ways messages can be hidden within messages. Steganography is the art of concealing a message within a different message or image. Of course, it has been widely used in wartime. The practice goes back to early Greeks hiding messages under the wax of wax tablets, or tattooing a message on the head of a slave and then waiting for his hair to grow (not exactly timely, but clever). Still, those messages don’t always contain the brilliant dual message strategies of Olówè.

Wouldn’t it be interesting to challenge students to create a message that could mean something different to two different groups? Imagine another era of history. How, for example, could the Sons of Liberty have created posters that gave the impression of being pro-British, while giving a message of independence? (Did they ever do that?)

When else might someone want to send a hidden message? For what purpose? Sometimes manufacturers are required to produce messages about the dangers of their products. Could they do that while also advertising their products? Interesting questions. Perhaps some of your students would like to explore the questions of dual messages–in the spirit of a very creative carver.


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