Loango Ivory Elephant’s Tusk carved with Scenes of Indentured African Porters
Congo or Angola
This particularly well-carved and evocative carved ivory tusk is from the Congo or Angola region of central and east Africa. It is carved with one continuous spiral design running up the tusk and shows the lot of local porters under the control of European ’employers’. Such tusks, known as Loango tusks (after the old Loango Kingdom that existed in the area from the fifteenth to nineteenth centuries) were carved for early travellers to the region.
Traditionally, ivory was reserved for rulers in Congolese society. Items such as knife handles, fly whisks, hairpins and bracelets were made for them by the ethnic Vili people, who excelled at ivory carving. This tusk would also have been carved by a Vili carver, although not for local use. Such tusks were believed to take from two to sixteen months to carve (Faber, 2011, p. 135.) The depictions on such tusks, according to Faber, 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 area was important for ivory and rubber. By the last nineteenth century, the Congo was being run as a virtual private colony of King Leopold of Belgium, with his control being masked by a complex series of front companies. Porters and other labourers were indentured and effectively were slaves. It is this reality that depicted so well on this tusk. Porters were described as ‘volunteers’ in official reports, despite the routine use of chains and manacles. According to Hochschild (2000, p. 130), one officer noted that the problem of files of conscripted porters being chained together meant that when crossing narrow long bridges, ‘if one falls off, he pulls the whole file off and it disappears.’
Edmond Picard, a Belgian senator, described a caravan of porters he saw on route to the big rapids in the Congo in 1896 (as cited in Hochschild, 2000, p. 119-20):
‘Unceasingly we meet these porters…black, miserable, with only a horribly filthy loin-cloth for clothing, frizzy and bare head supporting the load – box, bale, ivory tusk…barrel; most of them sickly, drooping under a burden increased by tiredness and insufficient food – a handful of rice and some stinking dried fish; pitiful walking caryatids, beasts of burden with thin monkey legs, with drawn features, eyes fixed and round from preoccupation with keeping their balance and from the daze of exhaustion. They come and go like this by the thousands…requisitioned by the State armed with its powerful militia, handed over by chiefs whose slaves they are and who make off with their salaries, totting with bent knees, belly forward, an arm raised to steady the load, the other leaning on a long walking stick, dusty and sweaty, insects spreading out across the mountains and valleys their many flies ad their task of Sisyphus, dying along the road or, the journey over, heading off to die from overwork in their villages.’
The tusk here eloquently shows porters carrying barrels, cauldrons and fish. Several porters are shown being punished or in distress. European figures are shown on horseback, using an axe and one is even depicted being pulled along on a two-wheeled cart. The individuals shown are differentiated by both dress and expressions. The end is carved with several depictions of monkeys.
Related Loango tusks are in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum, the Tropenmuseum, the National Museum of African Art (the Smithsonian Institution), the Walters Art Museum, the National Maritime Museum (UK), and the Victoria & Albert Museum.
The tusk here is in fine condition. However, the root end does have a jagged edge from some chipping. The tip also has a break and an old repair. However, the historically-important subject matter more than compensates for this.
Clifton, G., & N. Rigby (eds.), Treasures of the National Maritime Museum, National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, 2004.
et al, Africa at the Tropenmuseum, KIT Publishers, 2011.
King Leopold’s Ghost, Papermac, 2000.
Quarcoopome, N. O.,
Through African Eyes: The European in African Art, 1500 to Present, Detroit Institute of Arts, 2009.
UK art market
Inventory no.: 1983