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A Carved Loango Tusk : Local Images and Global Connections

A Carved Loango Tusk : Local Images and Global Connections book review A Carved Loango Tusk: Local images and global Connections edited by John M. Janzen Lawrence, Kansas: University of Kansas, Department of Anthropology, 2009. 69 pages, 13 color illustrations, 45 b/w illustrations, 2 maps, bibliography, index. $20.00, paper reviewed by Cécile Fromont Throughout the nineteenth century on the central African Atlantic shore, artists belonging to a group of coastal go-betweens known as the Vili people produced intricately carved ivory objects destined principally to Western audiences. Created over decades along the Loango Coast, a large region extending from southern Cameroon to northern Angola, the ivories varied greatly in size and quality but shared key formal and stylistic traits. Typically, they presented naturalistic carvings of human figures and animals engrossed in mundane, exotic, or fantastical activities in vivid, often violent, and sometimes humorous vignettes. Through these cameos, the ivory carvers chronicled life on the Loango coast as fraught with aggressive mercantilism, brutal colonial rule, tensed racial relations, and ubiquitous sexual predation. Souvenirs from the colonies and mockeries of the colons, exaltations of the region’s riches and pleas about its misery, chronicles of daily life and catharsis of quotidian grief, Loango Coast ivories and their ambiguous imagery formed a corpus replete with paradox. The authors of A Carved Loango Tusk: Local Images and Global Connections, published in 2009 in the University of Kansas Publications in Anthropology series, tackle these difficult objects in a welcome collective contribution to the scarce scholarship on the topic. The book compiles essays presented at the joint symposium and exhibition organized in 2005 by the Kansas African Studies Center and Spencer Museum of Art, both entitled “African Carved Ivory: Local Images and Global Connections of a 19th Century Loango Tusk.” The centerpieces of the exhibition, conference, and book were, on the one 88 hand, a late 1800s Loango carved elephant tusk, and on the other hand, its history as the prized procession of the Hamburger family for almost a century before its donation to the University of Kansas in 2004 by Wolfgang Hamburger. Scholars and teachers of central African visual culture, of pre- and early colonial Africa, as well as of the history of collection and display of African objects in the West will find the book a useful introduction to Loango Coast ivories and to the far-reaching issues that the context of their creation, the imagery they displayed, and the trade routes they followed raise across a range of scholarly disciplines. The text is accompanied by an extensive photographic record of the Hamburger tusk and includes several related images that provide rich teaching and research material. A common interest in “issues of historicity and agency in cultural production” (p. 8) brings together the otherwise heteroclite perspectives on the Hamburger ivory presented in each chapter. The centerpiece of the book is Nichole Bridges’s essay that situates socially and historically the production and early history of the Loango ivories. Her chapter also mobilizes a range of theoretical apparatus to showcase how the corpus as a whole can provide incomparable insight into Vili epistemology and its transformation in the face of abrupt social and political change. The book editor, John M. Janzen, contributes two introductory chapters as well as an insightful essay offering a tentative reading of Loango carvings drawing from his long-time subject of study, the nineteenth century Congo Lemba trading association. These sculpted ivories, he argues, demonstrate the shift in the region from a power structure defined by political might to one organized around mercantilism. The artworks thus should be seen as “objects that produced and reproduced what they symbolized, namely wealth dictated by the terms of the global trade.” (p. 48) In a more didactic mode, Wyatt MacGaffey situates the tusk in the history and historiography of African art in an essay that contributes greatly to the value of the book as a teaching tool, not least for the author’s controversial stance on African art history and what he perceives as its inclination towards over interpretation—surely a provocative point of departure for discussion in an art history classroom. The rest of the book centers on the entwined history of the tusk and the Hamburger family through the twentieth century. Wilhelm Hamburger, the donor’s grandfather, acquired the ivory on a business trip to India around 1905–1910. Subsequently, it became a repository of family history and a private monument of familial past. Reinhild Kauenhoven Janzen pens a poignant tale of the fate of the Jewish family from northern Germany, surviving through National Socialism and the battlefronts of World War II to eventually emigrate to postwar United States. S. Daniel Breslauer concludes the book with reflections on the significance of the relationship between the ivory and the family from the perspective of Jewish history. There are weaknesses to this useful book. First, its essays are perceivably indebted to their oral form, not only as they mention images shown in the talks but not included in print, but also in sometimes cumbersome editing and reference problems. Second, there is a true disconnect between the first, and main, part of the book focusing on Africa and the second, shorter part, focused on the tusk’s significance with regard to Jewish history. It may have been fitting for the essays to call upon one another and articulate their different perspectives in the study of an object best defined by its ability to create and pass on broad connections. One also regrets that Gerald Mikkelson’s conference intervention on the Trans-Siberian Railroad in the late nineteenth century could not be included here as an introduction to the Asian dimension of the Hamburger tusk’s history. Regardless, readers will appreciate the palpable intellectual and personal attachment of each of the authors to the Hamburger Ivory and to the many stories for which its carved surface has become the repository over the years. This makes potentially dull conference proceedings a truly engaging scholarly text and a pleasure to read. Cécile Fromont is an assistant professor in the department of Art History at the University of Chicago. fromont@uchicago.edu | african arts spring 2012 http://www.deepdyve.com/assets/images/DeepDyve-Logo-lg.png African Arts MIT Press

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