Islam and Islamic Arts in Africa

by Allen F. Roberts
University of California, Los Angeles (formerly University of Iowa)

Swahili kitti cha enzi (“chair of power”), Lamu, Kenya. Photo by Robert H. Nooter. Submitted by Allen F. Roberts.

Another significant artistic achievement of Swahili culture was the kiti cha enzi “chair of power.” These were often made in nearly identical pairs placed side-by-side or facing one another along the walls of the  carefully decorated reception rooms typical of multi-story Swahili dwellings (Meier 2009). With their lustrous ebony frames, ivory inlays, complex caning, distinctly pierced door-and-window architectural design, tall backs, broad arms, and comfortable footrests, they were well suited to convey their owner’s political power and economic status. Such a chair might be offered to visiting dignitaries as a sign of respect, but they served other ceremonial and ritual functions as well, principally as seats of honor for a bride and groom at their wedding (Allen 1972, 1989). This pair of chairs, seen in the ancient trade city of Lamu, Kenya, is among the finest of the genre.