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1 / Converging Cultures

Saltcellar with Portuguese Figures
Saltcellar with Portuguese Figures
Artist / Origin Edo artist, Court of Benin, Nigeria
Region: Africa
Date 15th–16th century
Material Ivory
Medium: Sculpture
Dimensions H: 7 ½ in. (19.1 cm.)
Location The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY
Credit The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Photo by Max Yawney

expert perspective

Jay LevensonDirector of the International Program, Museum of Modern Art, New York

Saltcellar with Portuguese Figures

» Edo artist, Court of Benin, Nigeria

expert perspective

Jay Levenson Jay Levenson Director of the International Program, Museum of Modern Art, New York

There were two types of objects that came from the Portuguese trading empire. Some were real objects of trade, like the African saltcellars that were created in one country—in Africa—specifically, to be brought to another country—Portugal. But there were other objects that were made, not for trade, but for local use.

Ivory objects would have been used by Europeans. It’s not clear at all that Africans used saltcellars. So these were objects that appear always to be intended for export. They are very much a type of hybrid art. Saltcellars are European forms. The decorations seem to be a combination of African images and also European images. It appears that the traders brought European books with woodcut illustrations to Africa and that some of the works reflect some of the African artists’ knowledge of these European prototypes. For example, there are saltcellars from Benin that are decorated with figures of Portuguese soldiers with swords and other weapons.” 

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