Friday, October 19, 2012

Ivory As Art and Icon Through the Ages

When I wrote about elephant poaching in my blog of Oct 2nd my timing was either terrible or fantastic. Less than two weeks later our copy of the iconic National Geographic Magazine arrived and there, splashed across the front cover is the headline Blood Ivory: 25,000 ELEPHANTS WERE KILLED LAST YEAR. I cannot show the cover, but I did find a version of it on line

The article, by Bryan Christy, with photos by Brent Stirton, takes a really up-to-date and deeply probing look at the end users, with lots of information that was new to me. Christy’s account is of events in recent times, but the back history is just as fascinating and it is this side of the story that I am trying to highlight here. I’ll also offer a brief précis of the National Geographic piece, for those who have not seen it, but the story runs to 30 pages and I will not even try in 30 paragraphs. There are several new URL pages about this story, which has garnered quite a lot of reaction. You can find somne of that at Christy's blog.

            It would be naïve to suggest that the human desire to acquire beautiful things is something new, or that it never took place on a large scale. Witness the recent discovery of ancient trading records from the Egyptian city of Alexandria. One ship alone in the Third Century BC carried 100 tonnes of elephant tusks in a single voyage. Acquiring so much stuff must have been a massive undertaking. We will never know how much of the ivory was “found” from carcasses. In this context found carcasses are those of animals that have died a “natural” death.

The first text I read that really looked at this part of the trade was Ian Parker’s and Mohamed Amin’s Ivory Crisis (Chatto and Windus 1983).

In terms of the consumption end of the equation, Parker suggested that a reverence for ivory crosses all human cultures and times. In his chapter titled A Long White Trail he quoted from a wide variety of sources from many corners of the world. The oldest record that Parker found was the use of small figurines, possibly fertility goddesses, that date back about 40,000 years.

There are several references to the erotic nature of ivory in the Old Testament’s Song of Solomon For instance

"Your neck is as beautiful as an ivory tower."

Throughout time several thrones (including Solomon’s) have been made of ivory, or ivory and gold inlay. 

Author and ivory trader Ernst More wrote Ivory: Scourge of Africa in 1931. In a lengthy piece about thrones he wrote: …"we should include the ivory chair, inlaid with gold, or Suleiman the Magnificent, in which he sat while, on the feast of Bairam, all the harem women came to kiss the unspeakable Turkish foot."

John Petherick, the 19th century explorer who preceded Burton and Speke in the Sudan and on the Nile met tribesmen who used who used ivory bracelets and necklaces and many other African tribes enjoyed its special lustre in similar ways. The Baganda, in what is now Uganda, even used small ivory disks as currency.

The apogee of all this consumption, at least until modern times of which Brian Christy reports, must surely be during Roman times. The seats in the senate were made of ivory, and if that was not enough Emperor Caligula built a whole stable from the stuff for his horse. Another account has it that the stable was made of marble, but had an ivory manger. I wonder if this was Caligula’s favourite, named Incitatus, which, according to some historians, was attended by servants and fed oats mixed with gold flake. It seems quite possible as he was emperor for only four years before being assassinated.

It does seem that the massive killing of the elephants of North Africa, the kind that Hannibal took across the Alps, may have been the principal cause of their extermination.

There are many other examples that Parker gave, but these give a taste.
By the early 20th century extra sets of uses had appeared in Western culture. Billiard balls and piano keys were made of ivory. Not any more, but you can find websites that advertise antique billiard balls. Caveat emptor, plastic can be made to look very like the real thing.   

Much ivory is worked into exquisite pieces of unimaginable complexity. One that has intrigued me is the ivory ball shown here. In the top segment there are twelve balls carved inside one another. There are no splits of creases in the work. Each ball is carved in turn, from the outside, and each one rotates independently. If the outer one that one can clearly see is delicate and amazing, having taken hours, probably days, to carve, how difficult was it for the incredibly skilled craftsman to work the innermost, and what sort of highly specialized instrument was used? The bottom ball had only six layers.

I found this image from the National Museum of Taiwan. The close-up of the ball shows some of the 21 layers that a real artisan had created.

Carver at work. Douala, 1997
When I did some volunteer work for the Wildlife Conservation Society in Cameroon in the 1990s I visited the ivory trading centre in Doula, the commercial capital of the country. There were several carvers toiling way, but the standard of workmanship did not even approach those balls on their tower.

Ivory pieces and wood carvings in the Douala market

 The biggest surprise, for me, is the widespread used of and reverence for ivory among Roman Catholics in the Philippines. Christy quotes one collector who stated that “I don’t see the elephant, I see the Lord.” One of Stirton’s photos shows a man sitting among an extraordinary collection of ivory statues and elaborate carvings that must be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not more.   

One of the most amazing pieces is a carving of Christ on the cross, which hangs in a museum in Manila. His body, carved from a single tusk, is 30 inches long. You can see a small reproduction of this photo in this article.

Some of the vigorous reactions to this story appear here in Church reaction to art or in "Philippines officials react & may go after“blood ivory” holders." 

Another of Stirton’s photos shows a worker in China’s largest ivory-carving factory working on single tusk that has been turned into a cornucopia of leaves, berries and goodness knows what else. How long it took to create is impossible for me to even guess, but there is not doubt that the craftsmanship is extraordinary. It is a pity that I cannot show it here, but maybe you will have to find the story somewhere.

During his two year investigation Christy met a wealthy 42-year-old man named Gary Zeng in China. When the author asked why young entrepreneurs like him are buying ivory the conservation went:
“Value,” he replies. “And art.”
‘Do you think about the elephant?” I ask.
“Not at all,” he says.

I could go on, but I hope that this is enough to give you a small taste of the situation. If the Roman greed for ivory really did lead to the disappearance of elephants from North Africa, are we heading to a wider extirpation driven by Chinese, Philippine and other consumers who know the beauty of ivory but would rather see it in a statue than growing on the original owner?

1 comment:

Sophie Rueg said...

Hi, agree with you ; if you want to see top exquisite ivory pieces, go to Dieppe in France. Sailors made them during monthes of see crossing. It's art now. Wasn't in the 18 and 19 th, just handcraft. Maybe it's the tip, push the fashion to say it's craps ?