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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Kongo Ivories

Kongo ivories reflect the dynamics of artistic expression and social history among peoples throughout west-central Africa’s Lower Congo region who trace their heritage to the kingdom of Kongo. In this region, ivory was a precious commodity that was strictly controlled by Kongo chiefs and kings. These leaders commissioned expert sculptors to produce fine ivory objects for their personal and courtly use. With the rise of transatlantic trade from the seventeenth through the nineteenth centuries, ivory became one of the most valuable African natural resources desired by Western industry. Eventually, Kongo ivory carvers expanded their repertoire to include not only works for indigenous leaders and elites, but also artifacts for European and other foreigners who were involved with trade.

Richly decorated oliphants, or side-blown horns, from the sixteenth century are among the earliest known of the Kongo Kingdom’s royal commissions in ivory. Although made in the form of musical instruments to be sounded during court ceremonies, many such sculptures were likely given as gifts and made for sale to Portuguese elites, missionaries, and traders. Therefore, Kongo oliphants and other ivory sculptures from this period are often described as Afro-Portuguese ivories, an appellation for this corpus coined by scholar William Fagg during the 1950s. Afro-Portuguese ivories reflect both indigenous African and Renaissance European visual elements. The finely chiseled geometric patterns that embellish the surface of Kongo oliphants echo similar designs on embroidered Kongo textiles made from palm fibers. In Renaissance Europe, sounding horns made of ivory were used for group hunts.

Apart from hunting horns, elaborate ivory sculpture for both devotional and decorative purposes was popular throughout Europe from the medieval era through the nineteenth century. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, industrial demand for ivory increased for the mass production of such items as combs, piano keys, billiard balls, handles for knives, tools, hand mirrors, and various decorative objects and trimmings, as well as scientific measures and instruments.

Ivory figurative scepters (nkama ntinu) were among an array of artworks created as emblems of royal and chiefly authority (1978.412.657). Kings or chiefs wielded such scepters during official appearances and ceremonies. These sculptures portray invested leaders posed with symbolic attributes. The summits of these scepters are sometimes covered or filled with a mixture of clay-packed medicinal herbs that served to reinforce a leader’s spiritual power. The practice of adding medicines with sacred significance to Kongo sculptures is most vividly evident on Kongo power figures (minkisi) (1979.206.127).

The aesthetic qualities of ivory itself can vary dramatically from sculpture to sculpture. The coloration and condition of any ivory sculpture are highly variable irrespective of age. Surfaces may range in color from white to yellow to brown and exhibit some cracking or peeling contingent upon the collective effects of handling, use, age, and environment. For example, a scepter’s handle may exhibit a more shaded and shinier surface than its finial due to repeated contact with skin through handling. Particularly reflective surfaces may have been highly polished to exploit the natural lubricants intrinsic to ivory’s structure. In some instances, glistening and reddened scepters’ finials were likely rubbed and polished repeatedly with palm oil.

Relentless demand for ivory dramatically diminished African elephant (Loxodonta africana) populations. As early as the mid-seventeenth century, elephants were extinct along the West African coast, forcing hunting and trade caravans farther and farther inland in search of ivory. Although Asian elephants (Elephas maximus) also grow ivory tusks, their tusks are much smaller than those grown by African elephants and are only evident on male elephants. The tremendous size of African elephant tusks—as large as about 225 lbs. and 10 feet long—combined with their appearance on both male and female elephants, made African elephant ivory more desirable and plentiful for market demand. Today, both African and Asian elephants are endangered and protected species, but frequently are victims of illegal poaching.

Kongo ivory sculptors’ renowned skill combined with the high market value of ivory led to a demand for relief-carved tusks and various ivory figurines as popular souvenirs for European merchants engaged in trade along the Loango Coast of west-central Africa (1993.382a,b; 1978.412.348). Loango Coast ivories, which flourished during the mid- to late nineteenth century, feature illustrative vignettes conveying the bustling commercial atmosphere that characterized contact between foreign traders and Africans throughout the transatlantic trade. Most full, carved Loango tusks do not surpass two to three feet in length because they were sourced from forest elephants, which are much smaller than the African savanna elephant. Full Loango tusk sculptures made from the massive tusks of savanna elephants are extremely rare.

The corpus of Kongo ivories dating from the sixteenth to the early twentieth century demonstrates Kongo sculptors’ adaptability in providing artworks of great artistic accomplishment for both indigenous and foreign clients. Limited availability of ivory and social disruptions brought about by colonial rule resulted in a significant decline of sculptural output in ivory, especially for indigenous leaders, after the early twentieth century.

Loango Coast Souvenir Ivories
Ivory tusk sculptures from the Loango coast enjoyed great popularity as souvenirs among Western traders from the mid-nineteenth to the early twentieth century (1993.382a,b; 1978.412.348). Scenes commonly portrayed in relief on the ivories capture the dynamic and cosmopolitan coastal activity related to the transatlantic trade. Scenes include: processions of African figures wearing assorted local and Western attire, caravans of African porters bearing boxes and bundles of trade goods overhead, captive Africans in chains and chokeholds, Western merchants and trading houses, and an assortment of animals typical to the region, among a vast array of other assorted imagery.

Like the sixteenth-century Afro-Portuguese ivories, nineteenth-century Loango Coast souvenir ivories were also made for sale to Westerners. Afro-Portuguese and Loango Coast ivories incorporate visual elements from both foreign and indigenous sources. Kongo sculptors of Loango ivories saw illustrations from printed serials brought to the area by foreign traders. The figurative carving evident on the Loango ivories appealed to Western tastes for illustrated narratives.

Beyond foreign influences, Loango coast souvenir ivories also reflect indigenous artistic traditions for relief-carved artworks. Many full relief-carved Loango tusks exhibit a dominant spiral motif that echoes the geometric spiral decorations seen on Afro-Portuguese Kongo oliphants. The tusks’ relief carving and narrative function reflect traditional Kongo “scepter-slates” (lusumu), whose more abstract imagery served as an elder’s mnemonic device for recounting history and cosmology to his community. Also, the summits of many relief-carved tusks portray a seated mother and child, a familiar motif for traditional sculptures that honored female ancestors (1979.206.29).

Foreigners who visited the Loango coast during the late nineteenth century described the Kongo sculptors of souvenir ivories as specialists in ivory carving. These carvers belonged to a social class of middlemen who had long brokered trade between foreign merchants on the coast and indigenous peoples far into the interior since the sixteenth century. Portuguese arrived in the Lower Congo at the end of the fifteenth century. This long-standing experience of trade and contact with foreigners likely facilitated Kongo sculptors’ ability to appeal to Western tastes and preferences in their souvenir ivories.