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Date: late 19th to mid–20th century
Geographic Location: Sierra Leone
Dimensions: Overall: 23 3/4 x 2 1/4 x 3 3/4 in. (60.325 x 5.715 x 9.525 cm)
Credit Line: Dallas Museum of Art, The Eugene and Margaret McDermott Art Fund, Inc.
Object Number: 1994.198.McD
This ivory horn was originally used to announce the arrival of a paramount chief in Mende (MEN-dee) society. The sounds of this horn also served to entertain the ruler. Images of a nude female, a lizard, and a wheel are carved in relief on the horn’s surface. Though the meanings are not clear, the images are found in other Mende art as well as the art of the Sherbro (SHER-bro), Sapi (SAH-pee), and Temne peoples.
Horns and other musical instruments were widely used as items of war by the Mende peoples. Today, trumpets are mostly ceremonial objects used to play fanfares for Mende chiefs.
While the meanings of the imagery carved in relief on this instrument are not fully understood, what can be cited are contexts in which the imagery occurs in the art of the Mende (MEN-dee), Sherbro (SHER-bro), Sapi (SAH-pee), and Temne peoples. The wheel, for example, is found on the top of a gbini, a mask associated with the power of the Mende paramount chief’s crown. This motif is also found on a Renaissance-period ivory salt cellar, one of the so-called Afro-Portuguese ivories that were exported to Europe and destined for the tables of the wealthy nobility.
The nude female standing on a platform is similar to one that is attached to a harp of Temne origin, which is illustrated without commentary in a missionary publication from the early nineteenth century. She holds her breasts as a sign of nurturance or blessing, underscoring the theme of protection.
The rectangular shapes appear as decoration on the Mende sowei helmet masks of the Sande (SAHN-day) society that initiates girls into womanhood. They represent amulets that are sometimes covered with silver, gold, or leather and contain Islamic inscriptions believed to have spiritual power.
On the back of the horn is a bird carved in full relief and a loop for a fiber or leather carrying cord. Concentric circles, half circles, and multiple bands are incised on the horn or carved in relief.
Carved from wood, this standing female figure is a decorative element in an early 19th century Temne harp.
The horn, for the Mende peoples, was originally an instrument that sounded the call to war. Mende warriors, after scaling the walls of a besieged town and opening its gates, blew small elephant tusk trumpets signaling to warriors outside that the battle could begin.
Horns also have a long history as symbols of Mende chieftaincy. In the late-nineteenth century, when Mende warriors were used as mercenaries by the British, the gift of a trumpet symbolized Queen Victoria’s acknowledgement of Mende chiefs. These trumpets were later replaced by staffs with a silver knob bearing the British coat of arms.
It has been suggested that this horn, originally owned by a paramount chief of the Mende, predates British colonization. It was used to play a fanfare that announced the ruler’s arrival and to entertain with its bold tones. Unlike a trumpet, which has a mouthpiece at the top of the instrument, the mouthpiece of this horn is located on the inner side of its tusk-shaped form.
Horns remain important items for the Mende. Even now, horns can be heard from cars traveling through the streets of Sierra Leone’s capital, signaling the arrival of a Mende chief. Trumpets are also used at certain celebrations or to warn in emergencies. The Mende are one of the few peoples in Sierra Leone to have female paramount chiefs and there has been at least one female trumpeter.
The Mende are rice farmers who migrated to Sierra Leone from various African territories in the sixteenth century, aggressively displacing the conquered peoples. Within Mende chiefdoms, boys and girls are initiated into gender-based societies. These societies, Poro (POOR-o) for males and Sande (SAHN-day) for females, serve as educational institutions that impart and preserve Mende morals, history, and customs. Today, the Mende number approximately 700,000.
The "wheel" motif that appears on the gbini mask symbolizes a Mende paramount chief's supreme power. Mattru Kolanima, Tinoko Chiefdom, Sierra Leone, 1974.
Ivory saltcellar with "wheel" motif, c. 16th century. Collection of Alain de Monbrison.
Many works of art seen in museums have a religious or ceremonial significance that may not be readily apparent or easily understood. Because many of the beliefs, values, and traditions associated with these objects are complex or unfamiliar, teaching about these objects can be challenging. In a diverse and global world, it is important to maintain a high level of cultural sensitivity in the classroom and to promote cultural literacy. Presented here are several guidelines for teaching about the beliefs, values, and traditions related to these works of art in a sensitive and respectful manner.
- Consider the Museum Setting
Remember that these objects were not originally intended to be displayed in museums and many served utilitarian as well as aesthetic functions. Some objects were never meant to be preserved and others were only supposed to be seen by a small, elite group within the source culture. These issues make it all the more important for educators to provide relevant contextual information surrounding these objects. Older students can consider the ethical implications of the placement of these objects in museums, from the colonial expansions that encouraged their acquisition to the educational benefits of publicly accessible art.
- Provide Context and Narrative
When discussing works that carry a religious or ceremonial significance, it is important to consider the original context in which the object would have been used. Where appropriate, emphasize that many of the ceremonies and religions studied are living traditions that are still practiced today. Additionally, providing a narrative through contextual storytelling engages students in learning about a culture or religion different from their own in a nonthreatening way.
Equally important to context is geography. Emphasize the diversity of the continents and encourage students to remember that Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Americas are made up of many countries and cultures. A great starting point is to locate where students live on a world map and then locate the country or region from which the artwork comes.
- Use Inclusive Language
Use language that is inclusive, and avoid indicating your own cultural or religious biases. By remaining neutral, all backgrounds can be respected and no one treated like an outsider. Avoid setting up a dichotomy of “us” and “them” when discussing these cultures and arbitrary categories such as “western” and “non-western.” Instead, be specific, and categorize the objects by country or religion. Specificity steers students away from the trap of oversimplifying diverse continents such as Asia or Africa into homogenous regions that serve as the “other” of the “western” world.
- Carefully Select Vocabulary
When discussing works of art with cultural and religious significance, avoid terms that carry a derogatory tone or that have typically been used to disparagingly describe works of art from other cultures. Avoiding loaded terms will discourage a value hierarchy between cultures and encourage both unbiased accuracy and sensitivity. Examples include: idol, myth, tribe, artifact, fetish, primitive, non-western, etc. This list is in no way exhaustive or without exception, and it is important to select words carefully when referring to various cultures or religions.
Insensitive vocabulary is sometimes compounded by the fact that there may not be English equivalents for the names of religions, belief systems, or peoples from other cultures (i.e. many of the belief systems practiced by various peoples throughout Africa).
- Avoid Decontextualizing Activities
Remember that religious and ceremonial objects have a very specific purpose and their own cultural context. Avoid the inclination to design open-ended, “make your own” exercises where the objects are directly appropriated and removed from their context. (i.e. make your own Hindu god or African spirit) Keep in mind how certain activities could be viewed as disrespectful or even blasphemous by peoples from the culture being studied.
- Find Common Connections
Humans throughout time and all over the world share a fundamental unity of experiences that reflect common concerns, instincts, and desires. We all seek to understand the world and our place within it. Universal themes and commonalities may be found among diverse peoples. Invite students to search for meaningful connections between the culture studied and his/her own. While honoring a common human experience, also encourage students to embrace particular nuances and maintain the integrity of differences of each culture or religion. Understanding both similarities and differences between cultures allows students to be more compassionate, culturally sensitive, and literate.
- Consider the Study of Cultures
In the last century, scholarship regarding Asian and African cultures and their associated religions and practices has expanded immensely. Information that was once scarce or obscure is now more accessible than ever and can provide greater understandings about the art and culture of these peoples. European and American art making and record keeping mostly emphasize the individual artist or artistic movement. This may differ from standards in African and Asian cultures. Consider the role art plays in various cultures, why makers may or may not be identified, how record keeping varies, and why some cultures emphasize certain aspects of objects and their history over others.
Breuilly, Elizabeth, and Joanne O’Brien, Martin Palmer, Martin E. Marty. Religions of the World: The Illustrated Guide to Origins, Beliefs, Traditions, and Festivals. New York: Facts on File, Inc., 2005.
Mbiti, John. African Religion and Philosophy (African Writers), 2nd sub edition. Hinemann, 1992.
Nash, Robert. Teaching Adolescents Religious Literacy in a Post-9/11 World. Information Age Publishing, 2009.
Prothero, Stephen. God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World—and Why Their Differences Matter. Harper One, 2010.
Prothero, Stephen. Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know-- and Doesn’t. San Francisco: Harper, 2007.
Ray, Benjamin. African Religions: Symbol, Ritual, and Community, 2nd edition. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.:Prentice-Hall, Inc., 2000.
Said, Edward. Orientalism. Vintage Books, 1979.