20 June 2015

Ivories from West Africa

At the ethnographic museum, I was very taken by these wonderful carvings from elephant tusks, made in Benin. Art production there was spurred by the arrival of the Portuguese, who set up trading relations: " the Portuguese were able to offer military protection against enemies of Benin as well as luxury items that they needed. These items included coral beads, cloth and brass manilas for casting. In return, the Benin supplied them with pepper, cloth and their art work" says wikipedia; the art was important because it prevented economic dependence on trading slaves. And what wonderful art work -
The birds portray women - witches who were thought to be able to change into birds in the night.

Another common motif is a snake swallowing someone, as in these three examples -
 Another view of the two lidded cups, and how the lids have open areas -
The central figure (king?) with a sort of divided fish tail and two henchmen occurs also in bronzes -
Birds like these have a different story - that of false prophecy. Instead of winning the battle, as prophesised, the king lost, and the Benin people were captives and slaves. As a warning, these birds are put on the tops of staffs - 
 Less commonly, ivory was used for commemorative heads of kings -
 which were usually made in bronze -

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