A fine early carved Ivory tusk from Loango coast Congo
Carved with ascending figures in a variety of every day activities
Period Early 19th century
Size 38 cm
Fine early example with custom display stand
By the 19th century, after several centuries of contact and trade with Europe, workshops specializing in carving export objects for the foreign trade were established along the Loango coast. These workshops produced objects in wood, soapstone, and ivory for sale to both Europeans and Africans. Export objects in ivory included cane handles and stamps for sealing wax. The most famous objects in ivory, however, were carved figurative tusks that ranged from 20 centimeters to one meter in length. Using iron tools, artists carved African and European figures engaged in activities of daily coastal life in relief on the tusks. The artists carved and arranged the figures to heighten the naturalism and expressive power for which Kongo art is famous, paying great attention to detail–dress, hairstyles, gestures, and comportment. The scenes were carved and probably meant to be read starting at the base and ending at the top. This lively tradition of genre art in ivory lasted from about 1850 to 1900.
Many Loango tusks are in private and public collections throughout Europe and the United States. Because they have never been studied systematically, information about their original locations along the Loango coast remains tentative. While the styles, expressions, and arrangements of figures on the tusks clearly place them within the realm of Kongo art, differences in quality and individual characteristics point to individual hands and/or workshops.
During the 19th century, when many of the tusks were carved, the Loango coast experienced significant changes. The old Loango Kingdom broke up and new groups, drawn to the lucrative commercial life, moved to the coast. It is possible that, in addition to Vili artists, artists from other Kongo or neighboring groups worked in the ateliers carving tusks and other objects for export.
Source: Smithsonian Museum of African art