Ivories from the west coast of Africa were for the most part the first African artifacts brought back to Europe through trade. The discovery of vast quantities of West African ivory, called “white gold” in Europe, transformed the nature of African-Portuguese trading in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. As Portuguese wealth increased at this time, so did taste for these luxury goods. Ivory’s enormous commercial value led African leaders to carefully control its distribution and use.
Initially, exquisitely carved African ivories came from Sierra Leone, made by Sapi artisans. Later, as the political climate in the country grew untenable for Portuguese traders, ivories were exported from the kingdom of Benin. Intended as gifts for the patrons of the Portuguese voyages, they often became part of princely cabinets of curiosity, large collections of assorted “exotica” from around the world. They were thus displayed and stored next to shells, bones, feathers, and other artifacts. These works remained largely misunderstood and their African origin forgotten until the scholarly work of art historians William Fagg and Ezio Bassani identified the corpus by comparing their iconography and styles to Sapi and Benin works in other media.
Both Sapi and Benin patronage structures were similar to those of Europe from the same period. Patrons commissioned pieces often prescribing specific desires and conditions, or even bringing a model for the artist to emulate. For example, Portuguese patrons on occasion brought silverware or etchings.
At this time, artists in Africa—like those in Europe—worked in cultures that were primarily illiterate and therefore dependent on image-based visual teaching of shared knowledge, beliefs, and rules. Benin and Sapi artists, like their European counterparts, were trained through apprenticeship systems. They often spent their lives learning their trade in the workshops of masters. It is believed that there were less than forty of these workshops in both Benin and Sierra Leone.
Overall, the European component of the Afro-Portuguese aesthetic is associated with the use of deep space, scenes, or tableaux. African imagery includes both human and animal forms that are depicted frontally and in a static manner. The African aesthetic encompasses clear articulation of geometry and intense flat linear patterning. The design of the saltcellars (1972.63a,b, 1991.435a,b), with a round vessel encased within a flat-bottomed superstructure, may synthesize vessels of both African and European origin. The round section may be associated with the gourd or calabash, which was and still is used in Africa as a receptacle as well as in the production of musical instruments.
These objects represent an interesting forty-year slice of precolonial history. They have been described as emerging from a period that predates power imbalances and racist imagery. Therefore the shared African and Portuguese aesthetic that they reflect is one that was achieved through the negotiation of equals.
-Emma George Ross, Metropolitan Museum of Art