- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 19, 2008

In the minds of most Westerners, African art is synonymous with primitive wooden masks and statues. A new exhibition at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art expands that narrow view by showcasing far more delicate, luxurious carvings. This intimate display features 74 objects made from what some consider the world’s first plastic — ivory.Smooth, lustrous and fine-grained, the hard substance has long been valued by cultures across the globe. It was used as sculptural medium by ancient Roman, Byzantine and Chinese artists before becoming a durable choice for piano keys, billiard balls and buttons.

Ivory inspired African artisans to be especially creative, as shown in these exhibited works from the 1400s through the early 1900s. On display are many small personal items, including hairpins, snuff boxes, pendants and spoons. Among the more unusual pieces are a whistle worn for protection during hunting trips and pins for supporting cloth hammocks. Larger sculptures meant for rulers, spiritual leaders and trade with Europeans occupy dramatically lighted vitrines.

“Treasures 2008” is the second in a series (the first was held in 2004) meant to showcase rarely shown objects from the Smithsonian’s holdings and strengthen ties to collectors of African art. It is about evenly divided between rarely shown pieces from the museum’s storerooms and others on loan from private American collections.

Riveting in their highly detailed, expressive surfaces, the exquisite carvings counter the stereotype of African art as rough-hewn and abstract. All are made from the tusks of African elephants, considered the best ivory in the world and now banned from sale.

This dentin material has long been prized for its whiteness, a symbol of purity and sacredness, but the exhibit includes pieces in a surprisingly wide range of warm colors. Some resemble wood or glazed terra cotta as the result of palm oil rubbed into their surfaces or years of handling. Two dark reddish Yoruba figures and a box lid from Nigeria look as if they were carved from mahogany.

Recurring throughout the exhibit are dramatic sculptures celebrating the bowed shape and large size of the elephant tusks. One of the most arresting artifacts in the show, made by Kongo artists for export, depicts a caravan of figures encircling the ivory surface of the tusk like a scroll. Slaves, sailors and a man attacked by an elephant are among the individuals populating the continuous vignettes. A photo on one wall captures at a larger scale the nursing mother carved into the tip.

A valuable trade commodity, elephant tusks were collected by kings and leaders for guilds of highly skilled artisans to carve. They were turned into cuff bracelets, fly whisks and handles for knives and staffs. The exhibit provides many examples but refrains from providing any background as to how these ornate objects were used. Instead, it concentrates on the aesthetics of the ivory pieces, a curious approach given the public’s unfamiliarity with this branch of African art.

Still, many of the virtuoso carvings can be appreciated on visual terms alone. Two of the most striking figures, created by the Ivory Coast’s Attie peoples as staff finials, reflect the cross-fertilization between African and European cultures through foreign trade. One depicts a proud bearded man in a high collar and brimmed hat, while the other portrays a woman dressed in lace-edged pantaloons and holding a parasol. Their fashionable Western attire is both eye-catching and symbolic of economic success within their community.

More remarkable is a small but monumentally scaled salt cellar made in Sierra Leone during the 15th or 16th century for the European market. Its base is African in design with alternating pairs of female and male figures but also includes twisted columns and crosses representative of Christian liturgical designs. On the top of the vessel’s lid, a bead portrays the head of Christ on one side and a human skull on the other. Green stains, perhaps from gilded copper, and holes on its surface indicate the piece may have been used to hold communion wafers.

In addition to showing objects combining African and European motifs, the exhibit includes a carving specially commissioned by a foreigner. In the late 1800s, German merchant Robert Visser had Kongo artists reproduce four of his photographic postcards of the Loango coast (along Angola and the Republic of the Congo) to adorn an elephant tusk.

The ultimate exotic souvenir, the scenic ivory well reflects the appeal of such intricate, sophisticated carvings to Westerners seeking to expand their African art collections beyond cubistic wood sculptures.

WHAT: “Treasures 2008”

WHERE: National Museum of African Art, 950 Independence Ave. SW

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily. Through Aug. 17.

ADMISSION: Free

PHONE: 202-633-4600

WEB SITE: https://africa.si.edu


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