Recently, we explored the history of one of China’s most famous exports, blue-and-white patterned porcelain, and today we’re returning to the theme of culturally complex trade objects that blend the aesthetics of indigenous creator and foreign market to remarkable effect. In 1460, the Portuguese became the first to land on the west coast of Africa and African ivory transformed their commercial networks. African ivory can be worked in astonishing ways because of the crosshatched microstructure of its grain, and gained a reputation as “white gold.” Intricate decorative objects were sought after by the upper echelons of European society: for example, Cosimo I de’Medici of Florence and the German artist Albrecht Dürer owned African ivories, among others. Keep reading to discover what makes these carved works so captivating.
1. The Portuguese first landed in Sierra Leone and sought out ivories from Sapi artisans, but when the political climate made commerce untenable, they initiated trade with the Benin kingdom. The West Africans both bestowed ivories on the Portuguese as courtly gifts and made them for sale, integrating elements of Portuguese into commissioned works. Afro-Portuguese ivories are unique in that they reflect a part of pre-colonial history that predates the birth of racially charged imagery and power imbalances. The result, which marries both Portuguese and African aesthetics, reflects a negotiation of equal artists and patrons.
2. One of the earliest kinds of carved works that were given to the Portuguese were oliphants, or side-blow horns. These were used for group hunting excursions in Renaissance Europe. The horns had both Portuguese and indigenous influences in their designs. They often were decorated with complex geometric patterns mimicking African textile patterns. This one, from the British Museum, shows a hunt scene featuring animals found in Europe such as stags and boars as well as in Africa, such as crocodiles and serpents. It also prominently features the coat of arms of the Portuguese royal house on its base.
3. Other elements of African style apparent in the ivory carvings are an attention to linear patterning, a careful articulation of geometrical forms, and figures that appear frontal and static. Check out these two saltcellars, one at the Metropolitan Museum and the other at the British Museum. The one at the Met features four frontal figures donning detailed dress, a local emphasis of the Benin kingdom. But it is also markedly European: their britches, doublets, hats, and crucifix necklaces make the figures’ identity quite clear. The saltcellar in London is even more obvious in its European subject matter: it is topped with small figures of the Madonna and Child and depicts Biblical scenes along with the arms of Portugal along its sides. This is the earliest documented Afro-Portuguese ivory in Europe.