3 Cool Things You Might Not Know About Afro-Portuguese Ivories

Afro-Portuguese Ivories: 15th- 16th cent.

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.











3 Cool Things You Might Not Know About the Moai of Easter Island

We’re commemorating Father’s Day with an exploration of moai, the mighty megalithic sculptures of Easter Island that represent high-ranking ancestors. The tradition of carving moai flourished between 900 and 1500 CE and their seemingly impossible production mystified the first Dutch explorers to reach the island in 1722. Modern experiments have cleared up some of the mystery of their mounting, but suggest that their construction ultimately took an unsustainable toll on the environment. Keep reading to find out how. 1. The Nitty-Gritty: Nearly 900 moai have been catalogued on the island, in erected, toppled, and incomplete states. The average erected moai stood 13 feet tall and weighed around 10 tons, although one particularly gargantuan one in the quarry measured 70 feet tall and 270 tons. Carved of soft volcanic tufa, the moai had inlaid white coral eyes and stood on platforms called ahu. Ahu grew out of an existing architectural tradition of Eastern Polynesia, where platforms supported temples.

2. Colossal Competition: The moai represented the forebears of the island’s chieftains, and were thought to contain their mana, or divine spiritual power. They marked the burial grounds of each chief’s clan, reflecting the island’s social division into a number of competitive groups. This competition becomes apparent in some of the later moai, which were topped with a feature called a pukao. Weighing up to 12 tons and made of red scoria, the crown-like cylinder demonstrates a desire to outdo other islanders by marking the moai as even more impressive.

3. Precarious Production: The most convincing theory for moving the moai from the quarry to the ahu involves the use of “canoe ladders,” parallel wooden rails joined by fixed wooden crosspieces over which the moai would be dragged. 40 people could move an average-sized statue, but 300-400 additional adults would be needed to provide food, cordage, and supplies. Given that the entire population of Easter Island was estimated to be around 9,000, these operations were an enormous strain. By 1600, all of the island’s timber had been felled to roll the monuments into place and to make the ropes required to drag them. It has been suggested by scholars such as Jared Diamond that making moai was a key to the collapse of society on Easter Island.

Image Source and Further Reading:



Diamond, Jared. Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. London: Penguin Books, 2005

Bell, Julian. Mirror of the World: A New History of Art. London: Thames & Hudson, 2007.

Phaidon Press. The Art Museum. London: Phaidon Press Limited, 2011.