People of Color in European Art History

  1. Artists Unknown

    Sapi-Portuguese Ivory Spoons and Fork

    Sierra Leone (1490-1530)

    Carved Ivory

    1.A Sapi sculptor may have carved this elegant ivory spoon on commission for a Portuguese sailor as a souvenir or gift. Although the forms and iconography are based on European models, the carving styles reflect Sapi local traditions.

    2. carved out of a single piece of ivory. A crocodile is carved on top of the handle in high relief, and the central section of the handle has a double-eight loop, with a snake on either side.

    3. carved out of a single piece of ivory. It has a slender stem handle, with spiralled decoration, and a thin, leaf-shaped, bowl.

    4.The top of the fork depicts a crocodile, and a four-legged animal biting a snake, in high relief. The central section is carved with double loops, and one can see the snake twisted through the loop, with its head poking out the top.

    From the time of their arrival on the shores of Sierra Leone in 1460, and until their gradual decline as leaders in world exploration in the sixteenth century, the Portuguese had an ambiguous relationship with their African trading partners. Disembarking at cities that were equally large, complex, and technologically advanced as Lisbon at the time, the Portuguese actually experienced far less culture shock than we might expect. In fact, they encountered urban centers in West Africa comparable to those back in Europe, governed by elaborate dynasties, organized around apprenticeship-based artistic guilds, and with agricultural systems capable of feeding their large populaces. Many African cities were even deemed to be larger, more hygienic, and better organized than those of Europe.

    Additionally, the Portuguese shared many beliefs about magic, the supernatural, and the treatment of illness with the African societies they encountered. Protective amulets in both cultures were considered medicinally valuable, and sickness in general was attributed to witchcraft.

    -Emma George Ross, Metropolitan Museum of Art

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