Reading African Material Culture in the Contact Zone
This chapter considers early modern ivory carvings and brass castings from West Africa as legible texts that circulated in Europe both as material artifacts and by description through travel narratives about Guinea. Although a great number of West African ivory carvings were made for indigenous use, many were also carved for European clients, some of whom commissioned specific European designs like heraldic beasts and coats of arms. As ivory was carved for people in positions of authority whether African or European, ivory carvings can tell us much about how Africans of the Guinea coast conceptualized state and military power in the early Enlightenment. Similarly, the iconography brass casts that have come to be known as the Benin bronzes that travelers observed on visits to the Edo kingdom contain different expressions of mercantile, military, and masculine power. Travelers, who had a vested interest in building diplomatic relationships with local potentates, used art and statuary as one way to understand West African politics and culture. Though individual motives for doing so varied, Europeans coveted and collected African artifacts, and travelers wrote about them in detail. This interpretive method gives present-day scholars a way to conceptualize African worldviews in the contact zone.