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Art Through Time: A Global View

Converging Cultures Art: Saltcellar with Portuguese Figures

» Edo artist, Court of Benin, Nigeria

Saltcellar with Portuguese Figures

Saltcellar with Portuguese Figures
Artist / Origin: Edo artist, Court of Benin, Nigeria
Region: Africa
Date: 15th–16th century
Period: 1400 CE – 1800 CE
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

The Portuguese arrived in West Africa in the fifteenth century and almost immediately began setting up trading stations along the Atlantic coast.

Among the most important relationships the Portuguese established was with the Edo people of the Kingdom of Benin in present-day Nigeria. In exchange for copper, brass, cloth, and cowrie shells, a form of currency in Benin, the Portuguese received spices, ivory, and, ultimately, slaves.

As the Portuguese traders were integrated into the economic and political landscape of West Africa, they became a frequent subject of representation in arts made by and for the Benin court. In turn, objects created by Edo artists, such as this saltcellar, were sent back to Europe, where they were considered luxury goods. Ivory, referred to as “white gold,” was highly prized by Europeans, and it is believed that carved ivory saltcellars like this one were sometimes commissioned by traders as gifts for the patrons of their voyages. Once in Europe, the saltcellars were either displayed on dining tables of the wealthy, fulfilling their utilitarian function as containers for salt, or added to princely “cabinets of curiosity” along with other natural and man-made “wonders.”

This saltcellar is an example of a work that combines West African aesthetics with the interests and values of a European audience. This traditional European object is made out of a material indigenous to Africa and depicts its figural subjects in a way that is characteristic of Benin art. Four Portuguese men stand around the base of the object. In typical Benin fashion, the status of the figures is indicated through clothing and posture. Two of the men appear frontal and static. Their meticulously detailed garments and accessories (which include crosses, swords, and spears) identify them as wealthy Christian Europeans. The men who stand between them, rendered in profile and in motion, represent their attendants.

Expert Perspective: 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.”

Additional Resources

Blier, Suzanne Preston. The Royal Arts of Africa: The Majesty of Form. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hal, 2003.

“Encompassing the Globe: Portugal and the World in the 16th and 17th Centuries (June 24–September 16, 2007).” Arthur M. Sackler Gallery exhibition. Smithsonian Institution. Freer & Sackler Galleries Web site.

Fagg, William. Afro-Portuguese Ivories. London: Batchworth Press, 1959.

Levenson, Jay A., ed. Encompassing the Globe: Portugal and the World in the 16th and 17th Centuries. Washington, DC: Smithsonian, 2007.

Ross, Emma George. “Afro-Portuguese Ivories.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. The Metropolitan Museum of Art Web site. (October 2002).

Smith, Pamela. Merchants and Marvels: Commerce, Science, and Art in Early Modern Europe. London: Routledge, 2001.

Visona, Monica B., et al. A History of Art in Africa, 2nd ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2007.

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