Altar and Finial, 19th century
Democratic Republic of Congo, Loango Region, Kongo peoples
Ivory; H. 6 3/4 in. (17.1 cm)
Gift of Marcia and Irwin Hersey, 1993 (1993.382a,b)
A master of Loango ivories sculpted this work, which was made as a souvenir for a Western trader. Some dozen individual artists' hands and stylistic groups are identifiable among the corpus of Loango souvenir ivories. Works of the Kongo sculptor represented here are distinguished by impeccable detail and the corporality and expressivity of the figures, which demonstrate attention to musculature and dramatic gestures of distress and aggression. This sculpture's imagery captures the elements of the Atlantic Trade in a limited space and reflects how Loango Coast ivory sculptors were keen observers of the foreigners among them. Representations of Western traders who shake hands on a deal, smoke a pipe, or light a cigarette are juxtaposed with expressive depictions of the capture and control of African figures for enslavement or forced labor. Composed of two parallel segments in which mannered Westerners appear above, or superior to, Africans in a context of violence and aggression, the sculpture may have appealed to popular misconceptions among late- nineteenth century Westerners that opposed "civilized" Europe against a supposedly "savage" Africa.