Portuguese 15th and 16th century overseas expansion and the growth of early global commerce, accompanied by circulation of goods and people, led to the development of a new intercontinental art. Prime among these artworks were the Luso-African ivories, which were exported from West Africa to Europe. Ivory was always present in the relationship between Africans and Europeans in the Atlantic World, usually in close connection with the slave trade.
Literature on African ivories has hitherto focused on the so called “Afro-Portuguese ivories” and on Western Africa. Research conducted before 2007 used a formalist methodology, overlooking the context of production. Determining the provenance, material and dating of African ivories was problematic for scholars who did not read or accurately consider Portuguese sources. The traditional concept of “Afro-Portuguese” underestimated these works as African artistic creations, while exaggerating Portuguese input. It also ignored West Central African ivories and objects produced later than 1600, as well as local production in Brazil.
The main goals of this project are: to reconsider the perception of Luso-Africans ivories; to reassess their artistic hybridity; to identify works which have been overlooked; to evaluate the trends, cronology and agents of raw ivory trade, both in Africa and in the Atlantic World, in connection with trade networks, particularly slave trade. A combined methodology for studying the objects’ meanings and context of production, from Portuguese written sources, has enabled the research team members to identify and date early West African ivories. This work will now be systematized, creating a corpus of African objects, in a broader chronology (c. 1500-c.1800); enlarging the spatial scope to West Central Africa and Brazil. In order to contextualize the Luso-African segment, its production, circulation and use, we conduct an inventory of these objects and of all the references to ivories in narrative, archival and visual sources, relying also on technical Art History and Laboratory Material Analysis.
We expect to revise and enlarge the corpus of African ivories and to analyze and interpret them within the cultural, economic and political context of the Atlantic World. Materials and results will be available to academia through an online open access data base on the participating institutions’ websites, and through international publications.
The project focuses on public and private collections and documents in Portugal and Brazil (Minas Gerais state). The wealth of Minas Gerais collections is yet to be revealed, while African ivories in Portuguese ethnographic museums, gathered in the 19th/early 20th century, have not been thoroughly explored. Close examination and dating of these objects may reveal a significant time gap between their production and their entry into European and Brazilian collections.
The project will focus on the inventory and analysis of the written sources, namely archival records and narrative sources on different regions of Africa where raw ivory was traded, and the ivory objects are produced. The purpose is to reconstitute the local contexts of production and to unfold the symbolic meanings associated with ivory objects, as well as the tracks, trends and agents of the Atlantic trade in raw ivory and its connections with local networks. Research in Technical Art History, using analytical methods from conservation science, can determine provenance and age of the material and may facilitate a detailed interpretation of individual characteristics of the ivory carving, such as color; structure; assemblage; dimensions; polychromy and gilding; and origin of the raw material. The experience of HERCULES Laboratory (Univ. Évora) and of LACICOR (Minas Gerais Univ.) guarantee the application of an analytical methodology and compliance with ethical issues. This ensures the application of the envisaged novel methodologies microscopic observation by optical and electron microscopy, mass spectrometry and isotope analysis, molecular analysis by Raman and FTR microscopy, DNA analysis and radiocarbon dating to the study of ivory within historical and archaeometric research.