Visit "50 Treasures Revisited" to see the Tegoi Orator's Chair


Close-up of the Orator's Chair.  Photo by Dr Daniela Vavrova

The Tegoi Orator’s Chair is a highlight of the 50 Treasures Revisited: Celebrating 50 Years of James Cook University exhibition now on display in the Cairns Museum until the 28th of October. Don’t miss it!

The Tegoi Orator’s Chair is­ a precious item drawn from the material culture component of the Bragge Collection and appears in support of our 30th Treasure, Laurie Bragge's Kiap Photo Albums which are part of his personal research library.

The Bragge Collection, generously donated to James Cook University (JCU) by Laurie Bragge and launched in 2019 consists of two intimately connected components: the material culture objects curated by the Discipline of Anthropology, Material Culture Collection (College of Arts, Society and Education), and housed in The Cairns Institute on the Cairns Campus; and Laurie Bragge’s personal Research Library which is managed by the JCU Library Special Collections.

Orator's Chair (front side). Photo by Dr Daniela Vavrova.

This ceremonial chair, standing at 143 cm high and 40 cm deep and wide was carved from one piece of timber and although it appears to look like a functional seat, it is designed not to be sat upon. Each latmul community has its own Orator’s Stool (also sometimes called a “speaking chair”) similar to this one. Traditionally, life on the Sepik River was male-dominated, and wood carving of this kind was made exclusively by men. Orator’s Stools were used as debating lecterns during village meetings, discussions and rituals in traditional, ancestral men’s meeting and worship houses known as Haus Tambarans. These houses, also man-made, carved and decorated, are ornate and visually imposing architectural structures that are socially, culturally and spiritually influential. Women and uninitiated men were not permitted to enter these houses. 

Orator's Chair (back side). Photo by Dr Daniela Vavrova.

In his Patrol notes from 23rd November 1972, during the Ambunti Patrol no: 5/73-4, in the Middle Sepik Province of Papua New Guinea, Laurie Bragge states:

Orator’s stools/chairs are the central feature of Middle Sepik Haus Tambarans.
They are used to facilitate debate, but not to actually sit on. This carved wooden Orator's stool was purchased from an Iatmul language speaking man named Yimbien in 1972.

Another Iatmul man named Waliaba told Laurie Bragge that:

“…before a raid, men make a sing sing and magic. It is through these means that the chair gets its power. The chair is not a man so it can't talk - it communicates with men through their dreams. The chair can also shake and move to communicate”.
The devil (tambaran) in the chair makes it move. The main purpose is to convince some of the men about the raid. A sprig of croton leaves (Codiaeum variegatum) resting on the seat of the chair is taken up by an Elder, who then speaks uninterrupted, beating the seat of the chair to emphasise his discussion points and to drum up enthusiasm for his point of view. The beating of croton leaves on the chair gives them confidence. Men slap the leaves onto the chair and chant
"we are not afraid. We will go and kill them, we have done it before and we will succeed again this time". Then another man will take up the croton leaves and beat the chair and begin his chant.

The people of Middle Sepik believe that spirits inhabit everything in the natural world. The figure that is carved at the front facing part of the stool serves as a temporary vessel for the ancestral spirit who presides over the meetings to ensure that speakers are orating truthfully. The human figure with its expressive face, eyes and poking-out tongue, is a common feature of Sepik River art. These figures often had an elongated head and torso and shortened limbs. Special emphasis was placed on the head (through its exaggerated size and shape) to show that it is the most important part of the body, where the spirit resides. 

Telefomin, Land of Min people. Source: Laurie Bragge's Kiap Photo Albums, V1, Photo 286.

The Bragge Collection contains more than 600 material culture artefacts collected and documented by Laurie Bragge during his many years of living and working in Papua New Guinea as Australian Patrol Officer (aka Kiap) from 1961 to 1978 and beyond. During his Kiap years, he developed a deep appreciation and respect for Papua New Guinea, its culture and peoples.

Cairns Museum Curator, Dr Daniela Vávrová told us that for her the significance of the Tegoi Orator’s Chair (in the context of the 50 Treasures Revisited Exhibition), “is symbolic of Far North Queensland’s connections, going beyond its borders, to neighbouring countries and their communities.”

The 50 Treasures Revisited exhibition is a collaboration between the Cairns Historical Society and Museum and JCU Library. It features 17 of the 50 Treasures from JCU Library Special Collections which were originally shown in the Perc Tucker Regional Gallery, Townsville in 2020.  Revisit that exhibition by taking the virtual tour and access digital versions of all of the treasures online in  NQHeritage@JCU. The selection on show now in the Cairns Museum is of those that most resonate with Far North Queensland. 



Dr Laurie Bragge

Dr Daniela Vávrová