Oct 27, 2009
Oct 27, 2009

Ancestral Altar Tusk

Ancestral Altar Tusk

c. 1820

Elephant ivory

Overall: 197.4 cm (77 11/16 in.)

Gift of Katherine C. White 1968.284

Did you know?

Originally, this carved tusk was placed on an ancestral altar as part of an ensemble of objects made to memorialize a deceased Ọba (ruler).


Ọba Ọsẹmwẹdẹ commissioned the carving of this tusk to connect with his ancestors and symbolize his strength. It is covered with royal figures wearing elaborate regalia and scenes of power, ritual, and violence. While Benin royal symbols may look similar across centuries, their meanings can shift. Ọsẹmwẹdẹ’s reign was prosperous due to trade with the Dutch; however, 16th-century Portuguese men are carved on the lower tusk. By the 1800s they represented any European traders. This tusk’s surface likely became worn and cracked from frequent washing, bleaching, and the applying of a white clay (orhue) linked to peace, purity, and prosperity.


Carved Tusk
See also
African Art
African Art
Type of artwork: 

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