Floral Workshop, Foliage Master
(Sierra Leone, West Africa)
Afro-Portuguese Saltcellar, late 15th - early 16th century
Height: 13 1/8 in. (33.3 cm)
Maximum diameter: 5 3/8 in. (13.7 cm)
Gift of Gustave Schindler, 1956
This intricately carved saltcellar is one of around one hundred extant late fifteenth- and early sixteenth-century objects that have been categorized as Afro-Portuguese ivories. Temne and Bullom artists from Sierra Leone, as well as artists from Nigeria's Benin Kingdom, carved these ivories, which present an intriguing mixture of European and African forms, motifs, styles, and patterns.
In the early sixteenth century, a Portuguese traveler wrote: "In Serra Lyoa, the men are very skillful and very ingenious; they make all the things we ask them to out of ivory and these objects are marvelous to see--like spoons or saltcellars or the handles of daggers and other subtleties;"1 and "[they] can carve any work one draws for them."2 Renaissance collectors sought rare and exotic objects for their curiosity cabinets, and the Temne and Bullom artists adapted their already well-established ivory-carving traditions for new commissions. The Oberlin saltcellar belongs to a subgroup of ivories that were produced along the Sierra Leonean Estuary. Artists living in this trading center would have seen European sources and structural prototypes; many seem to have had direct contact with Portuguese patrons.3
The Oberlin ivory is a lidded saltcellar, and it follows stylistic conventions for European metal cups of the period. Its basic ball-on-cone form is enlivened by two gadrooned knops; a third knop acts as cushion for a finial figure. Although these knops effectively imitate the forms of European lathe-turned ivories, they were hand carved. The gadrooning's strong curvature imparts a dynamic, spiraling movement that leads the eye up to the finial.
Stylized plant forms carved in low relief on the base of the work create a symbolic landscape.4 Four male figures produced in high relief emerge from this surface. Their caps and long, straight hair indicate they are Europeans, but the bare chests, bare feet, trousers, and torso scarification suggest they have undergone assimilation in Sierra Leone.5 Their style and proportions (their heads are about one-third body height) follow local sculptural conventions. Stylized dogs alternate with the men, and snarl at the snakes hanging from the knops above. A frequent motif on Sierra Leone's estuary ivories, this confrontation of dog and overhanging snake seems to have an African origin; its meaning has not survived.6 Dogs, known to have been used as sacrifices, play no strong mythological role in the region today.
The finial figure represents a kneeling woman holding a child. Although this is a recarving (see Technical Data), the two pairs of feet (which are original) are positioned in a way that suggests the finial did originally depict a mother and child, likely the Christian Madonna and Child. The twentieth-century Western restorer who reworked the piece altered its original style, substituting near-natural figural proportions and flattening the two faces. His efforts suggest an awareness of the saltcellar's contemporary "exotic" value. By clothing Mary and Christ in minimal dress ("primitive" and inaccurate), he constructed a mythical "African" version of European "otherness," quite unlike the Sierra Leonean versions.7 Five or more workshops operated along the Sierra Leone Estuary. The Floral Workshop, named for the vinelike motifs carved on many of its objects, produced the Oberlin saltcellar. The styles of the artists of this workshop varied considerably, but all showed strong links to local figural approaches and iconography, consistently including the human-canine-ophidian triad.8 Because of its leafy, abstract, low-relief ornamentation, the Oberlin saltcellar can be further attributed to the Floral Workshop's most skillful ivory-carver, the Foliage Master.9 Although he contributed his distinctive plant forms to two other saltcellars (one at Madrid's Museo del Ejército, the other in a private collection),10 only three ivories produced solely by him survive: an early example at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (inv. 1991.17.144, formerly in the Burney collection); another at the British Museum, London (inv. 1949Af46 177), and the third at Oberlin.
The Oberlin and London saltcellars share so many aspects that they almost seem a matched pair. If the latter had not lost its lid, the two works would have originally been about the same height. Their figures are similarly posed, with identical thick necks, tiny pointed chins, drilled nostrils, and highly conventionalized features. The Oberlin work's figures are all Portuguese males, while the London piece includes only African females. Both works demonstrate a whimsical interplay between figure and ground: dog tails and human toes integrate with the beaded lines decorating the objects' surface.11
Collection Gustave Schindler, New York
Given to the museum in 1956
Brooklyn Museum, 1953. Exhibition of Drinking Vessels. 18 February - 19 April.
Brooklyn Museum, 1954-55. Masterpieces of African Art. 21 October - 2 January. Cat. no. 128.
Oberlin, Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College, 1956. Exhibition of African Art. 6 February - 6 March. Cat. no. 47.
Kenwood, London County Council, 1962. An American University Collection: Works of Art from the Allen Memorial Art Museum. 3 May - 30 October. Cat. no. 12.
New York, Center for African Art, 1989-90. Africa and the Renaissance: Art in Ivory. 16 November - 9 April. Cat. no. 1.
Washington, D.C., National Museum of African Art, 1990-91. Icons: Ideals and Power in the Art of Africa. 25 October - 3 September. No number, p. 144.
"Exhibition of African Art." Allen Memorial Art Museum Bulletin 13, no. 2 (1955-56), pl. and no. 47.
Plass, Margaret. "Above the Salt." Expedition 5, no. 3 (1963), pp. 40-41.
Curnow, Kathy. "The Afro-Portuguese Ivories: Classification and Stylistic Analysis of a Hybrid Art Form." Ph.D. diss., Indiana University, 1983, pp. 102, 132, 134, 142, 148, 383, 432.
Robbins, Warren M., and Nancy Ingram Nooter. African Art in American Collections, Survey 1989. Washington, D.C., 1989, p. 154.
Bassani, Ezio, and William B. Fagg. Africa and the Renaissance: Art in Ivory. Exh. cat., The Center for African Art, New York, 1988, pp. 69, 74, 123, 225.
Dagan, Esther A. Tradition in Transition: Mother and Child in African Sculpture--Past and Present. Exh. cat., Galerie Amrad African Arts, Montreal, 1989, pp. 15, 39, 41, ill. p. 69.
Cole, Herbert M. Icons: Ideals and Power in the Art of Africa. Exh. cat., Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., 1989, pp. 145, 195 n. 10, ill. pp. 144, 186.
Curnow, Kathy. "Alien or Accepted: African Perspectives on the Western 'Other' in 15th and 16th Century Art." Society of Visual Anthropology Review 6, no. 1 (1990), p. 39.
Curnow, Kathy. "Oberlin's Sierra Leonean Saltcellar: Documenting a Bicultural Dialogue." Allen Memorial Art Museum Bulletin 44, no. 2 (1991), pp. 12-23.
The saltcellar has a ball-on-cone construction, the ball's upper hemisphere forming a removable lid. A large crack on the base extends up through the bowl's center. Hairline fractures occur on the base and lid, and the lid's interior is slightly chipped.
Repairs and restorations on the lid have been extensive; it now consists of three pieces of ivory. The remaining original ivory includes the lid itself, the woman's body from the waist downward, part of her right hand, and the baby's toes with the front of his feet. The woman's right arm is made of a second piece of ivory, while a third piece forms the woman's upper body and the child. Radiography disclosed the three sections are held together by metal pins and adhesive (see X-ray), the joins filled by a carbonate and sulfate mixture subsequently disguised by what may be synthetic paint. The material used and trace tool marks indicate the joins were probably made at the same time.12 Although the woman's lower body is made from original ivory, it has been recarved, probably at the same time the upper body was restored.
1. Valentim Fernandes, in Description de la côte occidentale d'Afrique (1506-1510), Théodore Monod, Avelino Teixeira da Mota, and Raymond Mauny, ed., vol. 11 (Bissau, 1951), pp. 96-97.
2.Valentim Fernandes, in Description de la côte occidentale d'Afrique (1506-1510), Théodore Monod, Avelino Teixeira da Mota, and Raymond Mauny, ed., vol. 11 (Bissau, 1951), pp. 104-5.
3. Kathy Curnow, "Oberlin's Sierra Leonean Saltcellar: Documenting a Bicultural Dialogue," Allen Memorial Art Museum Bulletin 44, no. 2 (1991), p. 16.
4. Kathy Curnow, "Oberlin's Sierra Leonean Saltcellar: Documenting a Bicultural Dialogue," Allen Memorial Art Museum Bulletin 44, no. 2 (1991), p. 19.
5.These men probably represent lançados, Portuguese renegades who lived on the African mainland in defiance of Lisbon's laws. They married within the community, put themselves under local rulers' laws and protection, and participated in local initiation societies; most were traders. The word lançado means to throw or cast, and signified that a person had thrown or cast himself among the Africans. Further information about lançados can be found in Walter Rodney, A History of the Upper Guinea Coast 1545-1800 (Oxford, 1970), pp. 83-88.
6. An early sixteenth-century traveler observed huge snakes guarding sacred Temne carvings in Sierra Leone; see Valentim Fernandes, in Description de la côte occidentale d'Afrique (1506-1510), ed. Théodore Monod, Avelino Teixeira da Mota, and Raymond Mauny, vol. 11 (Bissau, 1951), p. 102. Today the Temne still consider the serpent their chief spirit, a symbol of transition and the cycle of life, and the tutelary deity for male and female initiation societies; Frederick Lamp, African Art of the West Atlantic Coast (exh. cat., L. Kahan Gallery, New York, 1979), p. 10; and idem, "Temne Rounds: The Arts as Spatial and Temporal Indicators in a West African Society" (Ph.D. diss., Yale University, 1982), p. 272.
7. Six known Estuary ivories depict Mary, in representations based on two-dimensional European sources (most likely prints) provided to the Temne artists. See Kathy Curnow, "Oberlin's Sierra Leonean Saltcellar: Documenting a Bicultural Dialogue," Allen Memorial Art Museum Bulletin 14, no. 2 (1991), pp. 20-22.
8.On the Floral Workshop, see Kathy Curnow, "Oberlin's Sierra Leonean Saltcellar: Documenting a Bicultural Dialogue," Allen Memorial Art Museum Bulletin 44, no. 2 (1991), pp. 12-23; and idem, "The Afro-Portuguese Ivories: Classification and Stylistic Analysis of a Hybrid Art Form" (Ph.D. diss., Indiana University, 1983), pp. 383-84.
9. On the Foliage Master, see Kathy Curnow, "Oberlin's Sierra Leonean Saltcellar: Documenting a Bicultural Dialogue," Allen Memorial Art Museum Bulletin 44, no. 2 (1991), pp. 16-20.
10.This work was sold to a private collector by the Galerie Monbrison, Paris, in 1982.
11. For a more detailed comparison of the two pieces, see Kathy Curnow, "Oberlin's Sierra Leonean Saltcellar: Documenting a Bicultural Dialogue," Allen Memorial Art Museum Bulletin 44, no. 2 (1991), pp. 16-20.
12.Stephen P. Mellor, Smithsonian Institution, unpublished report to the Allen Memorial Art Museum, 9 October 1990.