Sculpture with Six Figures

Mid to late 19th century
Museum Purchase

From the mid-nineteenth century through the first two decades of the twentieth, the Vili peoples of the coastal region of Loango (situated within present-day Democratic Republic of Congo) created ivory sculptures for sale to Europeans. Many carvings cover entire elephant tusks with a spiraling procession of small figures. Others, are small enough to fit in the palm of the hand, or slip into a pocket for easy transport back home.

This tiny, superbly carved sculpture features relief scenes of the early colonial encounter between Europeans and Africans. On one side of the carving, an African trader wearing cap and long wrapped skirt shakes on a business deal with a Scotsman. On the reverse side, a smartly dressed European gentleman addresses an elite African woman using a longstanding indigenous Vili gesture of respect: hand-to-chin. More difficult to interpret are the enigmatic naked figures on the sides of the sculpture. The modest figure covering his genitals clearly reflects missionary-instilled attitudes towards physical modesty; and the figure’s pose is reminiscent of European Christian representations of Adam and Eve’s expulsion from Eden. On the reverse side, another naked figure is shown dropping off a wall, perhaps a reference to escape from slavery.