Art History Research Team Led by Mark Wins Major Grant

Peter Mark on the summit of the Ortler, the highest mountain in the Italian Sudtirol, in August. At Wesleyan, Mark teaches a course on “The Mountains and Art History.” (Contributed photo)

Peter Mark on the summit of the Ortler, the highest mountain in the Italian Sudtirol, in August. At Wesleyan, Mark teaches a course on “The Mountains and Art History.” (Contributed photo)

An international research team headed by Professor of Art History Peter Mark has been awarded a grant for a project titled “African Ivories in the Atlantic World.” The $115,000 three-year grant from the Portuguese Fundação para a Ciência e a Tecnologia (FCT) will make it possible for the research team to carry out the first laboratory analyses of selected ivories, in order to determine more precisely the age and the provenance of these little-known artworks. In addition, team members will compile the first comprehensive catalogue of “Luso-African ivories” in Portuguese collections, as well as the first thorough study of those carvings that were exported to Brazil at an early date.

Mark is the co-founder and director of the research group, based in Lisbon, Portugal. The 19 members are studying the earliest works of art produced in West Africa for export to Europe. These ivory carvings, made in the 16th and early 17th centuries, include hunting horns, delicately embellished spoons, and covered bowls called saltcellars that are adorned with figures of humans and with real and mythological animals.

The Luso-African ivories were made for a global commerce that linked West Africa to Iberia, Northern Europe, India and Brazil. The artists, who were from the “Sape” culture, incorporated images from books brought by missionaries from Portugal. The hunting horns, for example, are embellished with scenes of stag hunts. Some of the saltcellars combine European imagery with scenes and people from West African society. There are both Christian and local African religious symbols. By studying the manner in which the artists combined local and foreign imagery, the researchers hope to learn much about 16th century “Sape” religion. In addition, several of the pieces incorporate Latin inscriptions, and one saltcellar depicts men holding books. We know from contemporary written accounts that some of the “Sape” rulers – who may be depicted on the ivories — were themselves literate. One goal of the research team is to investigate the spread of literacy in 16th and 17th century West Africa.

The project is based at the History Department of the Faculty of Letters, University of Lisbon (FL-UL). As principal investigator, Mark will coordinate the work of the Brazilian and Portuguese researchers. Together with Professors José da Silva Horta (history) and Luís U. Afonso (art history), Mark hopes to be able to establish an exchange program between FL-UL and Wesleyan.

“This would enable Wesleyan students to participate in some of the original research, possibly here on campus, as Wesleyan owns one of these rare Luso-African hunting horns, collected by a missionary in West Africa in the 19th century,” Mark said.