This carved elephant’s tusk with a spiral design is a beautiful example of early tourist art from the Congo area. The tusk, one of ten that the Tropenmuseum possesses, is one of the so-called ‘Loango Ivories’, named after the old Loango Kingdom (15th to 19th century), which stretched out over the current coastal area of the DR Congo and Cabinda (Angola). Most of the tusks were produced between 1830 and 1900, with the second half of the 19th century being the heyday of this art. The Congo region seemed to be an inexhaustible source of ivory. European trading firms shipped out tons of raw materials. The ivory was used in the West for piano keys, billiard balls and ornamental hair combs, and found its way to artists. Due to the unbridled export of ivory, the Central African elephant nearly became extinct at the start of the 20th century and ivory became a scarce and unaffordable luxury item.
In Congolese society, ivory was reserved for rulers. They were the only ones that possessed jewellery or functional objects made of ivory, such as musical horns, handles of knives and fly whisks, hairpins and bracelets. The production of these objects was commissioned only from the best carvers. The art of ivory carving practised by the Vili people was held in the highest regard.
This tusk was also produced by a Vili master carver, though not for the local market. Ivory art soon became extremely popular as souvenirs among travellers, missionaries and the employees of the various European trading companies. The Vili quickly seized on the wishes of these new customers. In addition to ivory tusks, 19th century carvers also produced napkin rings, goblets, hairpins, spoons and letter
openers. According to a trader from that time, an experienced ivory carver had to spend 16 months of uninterrupted work on a large tusk and two months on a small tusk. The sale value was determined by the number of figures carved on the tusk, and this influenced artistic conception.
For the design of the tusk carvings, the artists drew from an existing tradition. On certain wooden staffs, stories were carved in relief in a similar manner. The depictions on this tusk are caught within a spiral band that winds around the tusk eight times. The scenes are exquisitely detailed, which is characteristic of a master carver, and facial expressions, jewellery, clothing and fur patterns are clearly identifiable. The appearance of the human figures mirrors the period. The local population, for instance, wears a mix of traditional and Western clothing. The Europeans can be identified
from specific garments such as the (tropical) suit of the trader and the riding outfit. A central theme of the tusks comprises depictions of the economic activity between Europeans and Africans. We see scenes portraying the transport of various goods (including Dutch gin) by convoy, boat and the trading post . One scene shows four slaves chained together walking to the boats. At the bottom, an elephant is being pulled along by four men. The top figure, too, a mother with child seated on a chest, is a well-known motif in Congolese sculpture and denotes the important position of female ancestors in Congolese society. They guard the traditions and protect their descendants. Her twisted hairstyle symbolizes a snail’s shell, which is interpreted in literature as a reference to the migration of the Congo people from their capital, Mbanza Kongo. It is also a sign of perpetual movement and growth.
The depictions are perhaps not so much a neutral reflection of the reality of the time, but are rather meant as an ironic or accusatory comment by the artist on the world around him. The tusk also bears an unknown inscription, ‘P.A.C.’, which undoubtedly relates to the European client who is unknown to us.
Wijs, S. Elephanst's tusk. From: Faber, P., S. Wijs & D. van Dartel, 'Africa at the Tropenmuseum'. Amsterdam: KIT Publishers, 2011. p.135.
circa 82 x 7 cm (32 5/16in.)