Afro-portuguese Ivories: the Gems of African Art


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Afro-Portuguese Ivories are artifacts that are well known and admired throughout history. Ivories are known to be derived from the west coasts of Africa. These works of art are the first known African art pieces to be brought back to Europe through African-Portuguese trading. The art found consisted of horns, spoons, forks, and saltcellars. Ivories originally were carved and exported from Sierra Leone, but as times changed, and political climates shifted, ivories were exported from Benin. William Fagg, an English scholar identified a group of ivory carvings from the West coast of Africa. He then actually coined the term “Afro-Portuguese ivories”. This ultimately shows that they are collaborative works of art, reflecting both African and European cultures. He also proposed that these could have possibly derived from Sierra Leone as well as Yoruba, and the Congo. Though he knew that the artists were African, he could not pinpoint an exact region of where they were working. While Afro-Portuguese is still the main term used to describe these pieces of art they are also referred to as Luso-African, Luso-Portuguese, and Sapi-Portuguese ivories.

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While many artists and historians think that these artifacts are coherent with Portuguese cultures, others seems to think otherwise. In the scholarly journal, “Towards a Reassessment of the Dating and the Geographical Origins of the Luso-African Ivories, Fifteenth to Seventeenth Centuries” Peter Mark states, “The ivories are definitely West African, and they are assuredly not a product of Portuguese culture”(pg. 190). He then goes on to say that while they don’t represent the culture of the Portuguese, they do reflect the close business relationship between Europeans and West Africans. Afro-Portuguese ivories from the Congo and Benin were also described as being close in resemblance to recent works of art known to come from those specific regions. In the scholarly Ethnology journal, “Afro-Portuguese Echoes in the Art of Upper Guinea”, William Hart states, “The so-called Sapi-Portuguese ivories were initially identified from similarities between the three-dimensional human figures carved on the ivories and the historically ancient nomoli stone sculptures” (pg. 77). This proves the authors researched argument that Fagg did not connect the Sapi-Portuguese ivories to the more recent Sierra Leone sculptures. In result of this, Sapi-Portuguese art has been tied to the past, and not with the more recent works of art at that time. It was also actually a common practice for individuals returning from Guinea to bring ivory spoons with them, hence the authors choice of title.

While this remained an argument between art experts, historians, and ethnologists, so did the topic of where the first pieces of Afro-Portuguese art was found. Benin is thought of by most historians to be, if not the most, important staple for Afro-Portuguese ivories. While not thoroughly researched, and vaguely described, this notion of belief is solely based on the brief diary of James Welsh. James Welsh was an explorer and the captain of an English trading ship. During his exploration, Welsh claims to see carved spoons made of ivory in the city of Benin. However, there is no actual proof that Welsh went to Benin or saw Afro-Portuguese ivories. It was reported that Welsh actually stayed on the ship while his crewmembers got off. In the scholarly historical journal, “Was the Report of James Welsh (1588) the First Account of Afro-Portuguese Ivory Carving in Benin City?” author Stefan Eisenhofer states that, “The report of Welsh does not give the smallest hint that his observations of the ivory spoons relate to Benin City or to its immediate vicinity at all”(pg. 409). He supports his argument by using a passage from Welsh and states that he mentioned finding ivory spoons in the midst of writing a dramatic and enthusiastic excerpt of the coastland instead of the city of Benin. This proves in this instance that it is hard to consider for this event to be the first account of Afro-Portuguese ivories in Benin like most people believe.

There are clearly many differences in opinions within the study of Afro-Portuguese ivories. From the different names, to the place of first discovery, to even what culture they represented. The differentiation of opinion could be based off many things. One importantly could be the different theoretical approaches and differing fields of those who are studying the Afro-Portuguese ivories. In this case, the used scholarly writings from an Anthropologist’s or Ethnologist’s perspective and a historical perspective, shows the differences in research. While both can be considered to be interested in the past, their theoretical views are different. Historians study particular events in history and the individuals involved without providing a relationship to the actual culture. Ethnology, a form of Anthropology, studies all the aspects of differing cultures. Anthropologists are a lot more interested in the culture or people they are studying such as their rituals, traditions, and even weapons. Historians however, study records kept or even diaries from the time they are studying. They focus less on the culture of the people, and more so on the written evidence that could show the development of these different societies. For example, it is shown in the Ethnology journal that was used in this paper that the main focus was connecting the right culture to the right pieces of art. The journal brought up new ideas which proved the ivories at that time to be linked to a more recent work of art during that time instead of just basing the artifact in the past. The historical journal used focused on a more data-based form of study. The author of this journal relies on the diary of captain and explorer, James Welsh. Welsh’s diary provided evidence to his argument that these artifacts weren’t discovered in the place many have known them to be after all. These few instances show that different disciplines can have many opposing opinions, or even just different approaches when studying the same topic. Thus, leaving room for many more discussions and studies in the future, and having a more broad spectrum of information to go by.     

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