Afro-Portuguese Ivory

By William Dewey
Pennsylvania State University (formerly University of Iowa)

Sierra Leone; Sapi artist

Salt cellar

ca. 1490-1530


H. 20.7 cm (8 1/8")

Seattle Art Museum, Nasli and Alice Heeramaneck Collection, 68.31

The same Sapi people also made this ivory saltcellar in the late fifteenth or early sixteenth century. The carvers of the stone images just described also made ivory items such as spoons, hunting horns, and saltcellars for the Portuguese sailors and traders who were then sailing down the west coast of Africa in their effort to discover a passage to India and the Orient. They are called Afro-Portuguese ivories. These are the earliest form of African tourist art we know. Most were probably done on order. They combine European object types with an African style of figure carving. In this case the style is Sapi. Spices and condiments were very expensive in Europe in the sixteenth century, so they were kept in very elaborate containers. Ivory saltcellars such as this have often been found in the collections of many of Europe’s oldest and greatest families.