Carved from an elephant tusk, an intricate ivory saltcellar stands only 10 inches high, but its myriad details make a massive impact. Four European males—two richly attired men and their servants—support a receptacle for salt, which is in turn crowned by a ship. Housed today in Paris, France’s Quai Branly Museum, the saltcellar was fashioned around the 16th century by the highly trained artisans in Africa’s kingdom of Benin (in what is modern Nigeria).
According to Kathy Curnow, associate professor of African art history at Cleveland State University, saltcellars like this one were made by a small group of artists (six or seven men) who belonged to a hereditary, male-only guild of ivory carvers. Their highly sought skills were passed down through the generations through demanding apprenticeships: “Growing up watching their elders’ techniques gave them a facility with ivory that surpassed that of contemporary European artists who had less access to this material,” Curnow said. (Discover the human toll from modern-day ivory poaching.)
In 1485 Portuguese traders became the first Europeans to contact the kingdom of Benin, one of the oldest and most highly developed states in West Africa. Benin’s kings were known as obas, who held court at Edo, later called Benin City (located about 200 miles east of modern Nigeria’s largest city, Lagos).